Are names important?

A Nature News article last week talked about the confusion that happens if a number of authors have the same or similar names (Scientific publishing: Identity crisis). This is apparently a special issue in China because of the difficulties transliterating Chinese cahracters into English and the use of only a limited number of surnames. The Nature Nanotechnology – Asia Pacific and Beyond Forum has a discussion about this topic (What's in an Asian name?).

The difficulties for German authors are much smaller, and this is probably true for other European languages. We do have a fair number of surnames, but umlauts in our names (e.g. in the very popular last name Müller) are frequently lost. As Cesar Sanchez pointed out in the Nature Nanotechnology discussion mentioned above, Pubmed started using diacritics, including umlauts, last year (Diacritics in PubMed® Displays and Searching). And the American Physical Society started to allow Chinese, Japanese and Korean authors to use names in their own language (Editorial: Which Wei Wang?).

But the problem is the same. There are at least 6 different M. Fenner in the MEDLINE database, one of them my cousin. Using the middle initial can help. I try to publish as MH Fenner, and very smart people will figure out that papers written by H Fenner are from my father. And what happens when you marry? My wife and I have different last names (which is uncommon in Germany) and one small reason was the scientific track record (including publications) connected to this name. Some of the other issues are nicely summarized by in a PLOS post by Richard Cave (Unique Author Identification, thanks Cesar Sanchez).

The solution? We need unique identifiers for authors. I recently wrote about ResearcherID, one such effort announced this January by Thomson Scientific. The problem with ResearcherID is that author identity is a very sensitive issue and many people will be reluctant to rely on a private company for that. Elsevier is doing something similar in their Scopus database (The Scopus Author Identifier).

Author identifiers should really come from a neutral organization such as CrossRef (a publishing organization that brought us the DOI to uniquely identify a scientific paper). They held a meeting with various interested parties in February 2007 (CrossRef Author ID meeting). Because of the number of parties involved and the different issues, this is a very slow process. And what is the U.S. Library of Medicine doing on this issue? After all, they publish MEDLINE, the most important database of biomedical research.

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5 Responses to Are names important?

  1. Massimo Pinto says:

    Hi Martin,
    nice Sunday morning post with lots of new material to study (at what time did you wake up?). Italians only rarely have middle names and this makes the identification of a _unique_ “Pinto M”, for example, rather difficult.
    I share with you my concern of a private company holding the key to unique identification of authors. If a unique researcher identification system were made available to the _public_, along with some nowadays essential metrics, as the “h-index”:, for example, the general public may have a means to evaluate a researcher’s publication record, which is becoming a hot-topic in Italy, where public concern has grown about political connections and public-health top job appointments.

  2. Martin Fenner says:

    middle names can also be embarrassing. My middle name is Helmut, not only my father’s first name but very German indeed and not used much since 1945. Remember the Jim Jarmusch movie *Night on Earth* with Armin Müller-Stahl as East German cab driver Helmut in New York? The Rome episode is of course a classic Roberto Benigni performance.
    Although I blogged about the H-Index “before”:, and these number are better than political connections to fill science job openings, I would be very cautious with using these numbers to evaluate scientists. See David Colquhoun’s excellent comment in the Forum discussion on “duplicate papers”:

  3. Massimo Pinto says:

    Thank you Martin,
    I downloaded and read both papers as at David Colquhoun’s post and found them both excellent examples on the gloomy world of career/prestige metrics. After reading them, I am left with the thought that any metrics is just a poor substitute for a real evaluation of a candidate. Too bad that a recent Italian open call for scientific proposals _automagically_ scored the applicant publications based on impact factor.
    As my former post-doc mentor says when writing a paper together:
    bq. “Don’t worry about choosing a journal. Let’s focus on Science”

  4. Raf Aerts says:

    I know the feeling. The other Aerts R is also an ecologist (a highly cited one listed in, and it happened already more than once that I received an invitation to review a manuscript in his field of expertise, not mine.

  5. Martin Fenner says:

    Today’s Nature News has an “article”: about proposed changes for research funding in the UK. The new Research Excellence Framework will be based mainly on citations instead of peer review. More metrics, less evaluation, wrong direction…