Five Guiding Principles and Best Practices

In our article for the Committee on Publication Ethics, we have outlined guiding principles for name change policies across five areas: accessibility, comprehensiveness, invisibility, expediency and simplicity, recurrence and maintenance.

Principle #1: Accessibility

Name changes should be available to authors upon request without legal documentation, unnecessary barriers, burdens, or labor placed upon the author making the request.

Many publishers struggle with the extent to which such a policy should require “proof” from the requesting author, and what the burden of proof should be. Publishers raise the concern that such a policy might be exploited and allow bad actors to engage in unethical or fraudulent behavior. Such fears are not based in evidence or precedent.

Publishers often seek guidance on whether or not an author needs to prove that their name change is “legal” before issuing a correction. In a world where legal name changes were universally accessible, expedient, and affordable, such a measure would make sense. Unfortunately, trans people worldwide face a mayhem of different legal regimes that govern their identity. In many states and countries it is simply not permitted for a trans person to change their name at all. In other places, name changes are not permitted until the person has undergone invasive and expensive surgical procedures. In all cases, legal name change processes are slow, bureaucratic, costly, and inaccessible to many trans people for reasons outside of their control. Consequently, requiring legal proof of a name change establishes an unreasonable bar that excludes the most vulnerable members of the community from remedy.

From a practice and implementation standpoint, this principle reduces the overall labor involved in a name change for everyone involved.

Principle #2: Comprehensiveness

Name changes should remove all instances of an author’s previous name from the records maintained and disseminated by the publisher.

Due to the aforementioned risks of disclosure, publishers must take care to not retain public facing records of the author’s previous name in any venue. This includes, but is not limited to, metadata, archival digital documents authored by requesting author as well as works citing them, tables of content, acknowledgments, and other paratextual materials, website URLs, search engines, database entries, in text citations, and bibliographic entries.

In many ways, this principle is one of the most difficult to implement, due in part to a lack of existing infrastructures for such changes.

Names pervade our digital infrastructures, in often unanticipatable ways. Each of the authors of this document has had to contend with the “digital ghost” of their previous identity to varying degrees, and so the practical difficulties of a comprehensive name change loom large in our experience. Thus we recommend this as an ideal to aspire to, with the understanding that (in the absence of a radical change to the infrastructures of digital record keeping and publishing) the most we can aspire to is a “good faith” attempt at comprehensiveness.

Principle #3: Invisibility

Name changes should not draw attention to the gender identity of an author, nor create a clear juxtaposition between the current name and the previous name.

Transgender people face significant discrimination, bias, and precarity as a consequence of their gender identity. Published works associated with a trans person’s previous name represent a direct threat to the safety and wellbeing of trans people, potentially exposing them to harm, including online harassment, employment discrimination, in-person assault, and even state sanctioned incarceration and violence in some regions. In the best of circumstances, such disclosures rob the transgender person of their right to privacy and the right to decide the time and place to “come out” to strangers in their professional life. Any publisher who implements a process for trans authors to change their name should work to minimize the disclosure risk to the requesting scholar. This includes foregoing traditional announcements and notices typically associated with updates, corrections, retractions, and errata, both in metadata structures and on changed documents.

We recognize the tension between the need to protect the privacy of authors who have changed their name and the desire to prevent recurrence and dissemination of their previous (obsolete) name. Without an announcement or notice of correction, the chances of third parties updating the name in their records drops substantially. This is a place where new infrastructures are needed, as current publishing and dissemination systems are not designed to push discrete updates of names to third parties.

Principle #4: Expediency and simplicity

Name changes should be implemented in a timely manner, and with a minimum of bureaucratic overhead.

The longer an incorrect name persists within the published record, the larger the potential burden to the publisher to correct that name. Erroneous citations will continue to accrue as new people are discovering and indexing the work under the incorrect name. Publishers should act swiftly to correct names as soon as they are made aware of the need for change. Publishers should also provide a clear and simple centralized path to changing an author’s name in order to minimize the labor of “coming out” that the author must undertake in order to seek this correction.

In our experience, even publishers seeking to provide relief to authors who have requested a name change often fail on this point, due to a lack of staff resources, a lack of clear internal processes, and inflexible digital systems. We see a critical need to improve how we design software platforms, document standards, and editorial practices for digital publishing to include support for name changes as a standard feature.

Principle #5: Recurrence and maintenance

Publishers should regularly audit and correct new instances of changed names in order to prevent ongoing dissemination of incorrect information.

Due to the citation driven nature of academic publishing, a single, swift, silent, comprehensive effort to correct a trans author’s name is insufficient to prevent inadvertent disclosure and the associated risks and arms it carries. Once a name change has been implemented, publishers should be prepared for some degree of ongoing maintenance of their records to remove recurrences of the previous name.

This, more than any other principle we have laid out, has the potential to entail the publisher and/or the requesting author into an unsustainable amount of ongoing labor, at least with our current infrastructures and practices. We take this challenge, and those described above, as a starting place for rethinking how academic publishing can take the lead on implementing and adopting new systems identity infrastructures.