Publishers: Changing the Names of Trans People in Their Own Work is Not Enough

Name in scrabble letters

As a founder of a working group committed to advocating for the rights of transgender scholars to be correctly named within the scholarly record, I am keenly aware of the risks and harms that trans authors endure, and the challenges faced by academic publishers seeking to adopt and enact inclusive policies. In 2019, when I started seeking my own name change, no major publisher had yet adopted a formal policy that committed to correcting the names of transgender authors on their prior work. I found myself navigating a confusing and exhausting landscape of ad-hoc name changes, refusals, delays, and closed doors. The consensus, within the publishing community, was that maintaining an “accurate” and “unaltered” historical record was more important than protecting the safety and privacy of a vulnerable minority within the scholarly community. Few publishers understood exactly how harmful it was to transgender researchers to have our previous name – often called a deadname or necronym – following us through our careers.

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This post by Theresa Jean “Tess” Tanenbaum originally appeared at the SAGE Perspectives blog and is reproduced here with permission.

I’ve written elsewhere about how I set about trying to improve the situation for myself and anyone else who seeks to be correctly named in their published work. Starting within my home discipline of human computer Interaction, I helped to create and implement the first trans inclusive name change policy to be adopted by a major publisher. I made a lot of noise in the publishing world, eventually attracting the attention of other trans people working on this problem and founded the Name Change Policy Working Group. Together, we’ve created resources for authors seeking name changes, and have assisted over two dozen publishers in implementing their own policies, including SAGE, Elsevier, and Wiley. We have worked with the Committee of Publication Ethics to update old cases that had been used as justification by publishers to deny name changes, have published an article outlining high-level principles for trans-inclusive name change policies and practices, and are close to releasing formal guidance on inclusive name changes for the academic publishing world.

The work we’ve done over the past two years (in conjunction with increased attention to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion within our broader cultural conversation) has helped to alter the consensus within the academic publishing world. Faced with examples of other publishers already enacting these policies, many large publishers are now working to grant name changes to the authors in their communities who request them. I’m proud to say that these policies will benefit any and all researchers seeking name changes – not just transgender people. While these policies are a huge step forward, they all fall short of fully equitable treatment for trans authors. This is because, with a few partial exceptions, none of these policies currently commit to comprehensively removing a researcher’s deadname from circulation.

The problem is that our names don’t just appear in our own scholarship. They also appear in the bibliographies, footnotes, endnote, and in-text citations of papers that reference our scholarship. This means that even if publishers correct our own work, it’s still just a drop in the bucket when it comes to correcting the scholarly record to properly reflect our contributions.

Publishers are hesitant to commit to changing names in citing papers for several reasons. Due to their reliance on “archival” digital formats (like PDFs) editing names within a document can introduce formatting, layout, and accessibility issues, and can be time and labor intensive. Some publishers have also expressed discomfort with altering publications of citing authors without their knowledge or consent.  There’s also the difficulty of identifying every instance of a deadname within the body of a publisher’s catalog, especially if that publisher doesn’t engage in any bibliometric cross referencing of their works.

While these are not insurmountable barriers, they have thus far been sufficient to dissuade most publishers from committing to correcting deadnames everywhere they appear. There are several possible solutions to this problem. The first is pure brute force: hiring dedicated staff members to manually locate and correct deadnames (and, ideally, pronouns as well) within a publisher’s archives. The second is to invest in more dynamic digital formats and infrastructures for academic publishing. Moving away from predominantly “static” formats like PDFs feels like a huge paradigm shift for the publishing field but doing so would have substantial benefits. Documents that aren’t trying to reproduce the features of printed paper can be made to be more accessible, can adapt more easily to mobile device contexts, and can take advantage of new author profile management platforms like ORCID to automate the display of bibliographic information, including author names. Moving to a more computationally sophisticated platform for published documents would all authors to reclaim control over their names, wherever they appear within the published record, and would also enable a richer and more robust infrastructure for tracking citations and visualizing impact. This would have tangible benefits for all researchers, not just transgender ones. So long as citations to our work continue to deadname us, we continue to suffer from the harms of deadnaming and misgendering. Until publishers commit to correcting all of their records and not just the ones that are easy to correct, the gains we’ve made over the last few years will be purely performative.

Read more about the name change policy at SAGE Publishing, the parent of Social Science Space.

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Theresa Jean Tanenbaum

Theresa Jean Tanenbaum (“Tess”) is an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine in the Department of Informatics. She is the founder of the Name Change Policy Working Group – an informal assembly of transgender scholars (and their allies) who have been developing new policies, workflows, and platforms for identity management and attribution in academic publishing. She is also the ACM SIGCHI VP of Publications, and has worked since 2019 to create and implement the first trans-inclusive name change policy to be adopted by a major publisher.

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