DURHAM, N.C. – Academic journals’ current name-change policies unintentionally discriminate against transgender researchers and may increase the risks of discrimination, harassment and violence against them, a new peer-reviewed paper finds.  

Allowing trans researchers to request “invisible” name changes – in which journals make the change electronically without issuing a public acknowledgment of it – would reduce the risk of accidental outings and promote a safer and more equitable work environment.

Creating a secure, centralized system for requesting and implementing these changes is essential, the paper’s authors say; making it less burdensome and demoralizing for the researchers is also imperative. 

“Publications are the currency of the scientific field; they play a major role in hiring, promotion and funding decisions. Not having the name that appears on your papers match the name on your CV and passport can be a huge liability,” said Leo C. Gaskins, a doctoral student at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment who is corresponding author of the new paper.

Transgender researchers facing this dilemma currently have three options, none of them good, he said. They can delete papers published under their former name from their resumé and forfeit credit for them; they can request a name change and risk being outed if a journal issues a public correction; or they can do nothing and hope that having a resumé with a disjointed naming history won’t place them at a disadvantage.

Researchers who have changed their names because of changes in marital status or because they are survivors of domestic violence face similar quandaries.

In the peer-reviewed commentary published March 9 in PLOS Biology, Gaskins and his coauthor Craig McClain argue it’s time to provide a better option.

They propose using the online indexing site ORCID to create a single, centralized process for name-change requests. ORCID is well designed for this, because it already pulls publication and grant information from thousands of journals and online sources and indexes it by author or recipient, using unique ID codes assigned to each researcher. With a little tinkering, the system could be developed to allow information to flow in both directions so researchers could enter a single, ID-verified name-change request that would be sent to all appropriate journals and referencing services for review and implementation.

This approach represents a night-and-day improvement over the current method, said Gaskins, who speaks from experience as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow who has been author or co-author on nearly a dozen peer-reviewed papers, some of which were originally published under his former name.

“As it stands now, there’s no way to have the change made on all your publications simultaneously. You have to approach each journal individually, and you quickly learn there’s no consistent policy or protocol for handling the request. It’s easier to have your name changed on your passport than in some journals,” he said.

Compounding the problem is that most journals’ name-change policies still involve issuing a correction to the original text, a measure that can inadvertently draw added attention to the researcher’s former name and gender change by creating a permanent record that lists both names together.

A small but growing number of journals and publishers have recognized this catch-22 and have taken steps to resolve it, Gaskins noted. PLOS, the Association of Computing Machinery, the American Chemical Society, the American Psychological Association, Wellcome Open Research, Cell Press, the American Geophysical Union and, most recently, Wiley Publishing have all adopted invisible name-change policies, meaning they no longer issue corrections when the change is made.

It’s a step in the right direction, Gaskins said, but even if all other journals followed suit, you’d still have to contact each journal separately and navigate its individualized name-change request process – a time-consuming and demoralizing task that likely lessens the long-term retention of trans researchers in STEM fields.

“To achieve real equity, we need to adopt a centralized process that lessens this burden,” he said. “Using ORCID would allow us to do that and create a safer and more welcoming work environment. Hopefully, our paper will help build momentum.”

“The science community for decades has had an unjust policy of making name changes exceedingly difficult, public and costly to one’s career,” says Brian R. Silliman, Gaskins’ faculty advisor at Duke. “Gaskins and McClain’s reasoning is practical, elegant, and morally right: there is no technological impediment to do so now with all journals going online and, more importantly, it is the ethically just thing to do to guard against the real and common explicit and implicit gender bias that occurs in science.”

“It’s not just about professional advancement,” Gaskins stressed. “It’s about human dignity.”


CITATION: “Visible Name Changes Promote Inequity for Transgender Researchers,” Leo C. Gaskins and Craig R. McClain; March 9, 2021, PLOS Biology. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3001104