Names and publishing

(I have a small number of rants I’ve been in the habit of periodically giving on the bird site. Since I exported my archive recently, I figured I’d write up one of these rants as a blog post & post it to my new mastodon account.)


  • The name you publish as doesn’t have to be your legal name

  • You can change your name legally but not professionally

  • You can update the name you publish under, that’s what ORCID is for!

Experiences (not) changing my name

[Throat clearing noises - part of the reason posting on twitter seems to work for me is you don’t have to have an introduction!]

So, when I got married in 2013, I changed my name legally/in personal life, but continue to work and publish under my original name. I was proud of my existing publications, so there was a positive desire to keep using it, but also…I was in the middle of my PhD and I was worried about citations and people being able to figure out who I was. I definitely didn’t feel like I had the ‘clout’ to get people to track a name change, so it felt like I would be starting all over. My name change also felt personal - it was an expression of my love, and I was a little shy about sharing it in professional contexts.

Cut to 2021, I had moved to the Center for Open Science after a few years of postdoctoral appointments, and was generally much less stressed about maintaining my academic ‘brand’. Here’s a summary of my twitter announcement:

  • This policy change at SciAm prompted me to realize that the reasons I had for retaining my professional name as my old legal name don’t apply anymore, so hi, I’m Melissa Kline Struhl!
  • The next time I publish something you can cite me as ‘Kline Struhl, M. (20xx)’
  • When I got married 7 (!!!) years ago, I only knew one person whose CV showed a name change. I also heard people (mostly sr. women tbh) openly sharing really uncomplimentary views on women who changed their name. And I was worried I’d kill whatever academic identity I was building.
  • Since then I’ve made a variety of non-nomenclature related decisions that were probably ‘a bad idea’ from an academic career optimization standpoint. I feel fine about all those choices, even if it does make it harder to explain what’s up with my career trajectory!
  • It’s shitty to look down on people or treat them as less serious academics for changing (or not changing!) their names. I’m really thrilled that women (in the US especially) have greater power to keep their names after marriage when they want to - it’s one of the big victories of feminism.
  • At the same time, if you decide academia and the all-powerful citation only work right for people who don’t change your name, you’re throwing up a pointless barrier that will hit some pretty specific groups of people at higher rates than others.
  • As that article points out, name changes in science are getting easier largely thanks to pressure from the trans community, so I’m very grateful for that activism. There are lots of reasons people change their names, and we’ll all benefit from this.
  • Now I have to figure out how to change twitter handles, orcid etc., so anyone got any tips?
  • Side note, I am not personally concerned about backwards compatibility. If you cite any of my existing work, my primary desire is for you to include the DOI in your citation!

To expand on the third bullet, by FAR the strongest pushback I have heard on name changes is from women more senior than myself. In grad school, I heard tenured women flat out say changing your name meant you weren’t “serious” & didn’t care about their publication record. To these people: If you kept your name, and if that was hard to do, I’m PROUD OF YOU. Please do other women the courtesy of respecting our choices, rather than implying we’re letting down the sisterhood.

If you want to keep the name you were born with, or the name you’ve authored under, then you know that names matter. For fuck’s sake.

I always hesitate to mention this because I think it shouldn’t matter to this conversation, but my husband changed his name too. It was harder for him to pull off bureaucratically because people asked him more questions and required more paperwork to prove what he was doing. If you want family names to be less patriarchic overall, let’s fix that.

Something I hear a lot is “Of course I didn’t change my name, it’s my name after all.” If you feel this way, then great! By all means, don’t change your name. I think these comments are generally intended to point out the contrast with (cis)men, who in traditional US culture often would not even consider changing their names at any point in their lives. But this is not a logical or obvious stance, because names are a cultural product, and cultural products are nuanced and variable across contexts!

Now it’s time for everyone to take a break and go read a classic post, Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names by Patrick McKenzie.

So, here’s the upshot: I have done two things which are actually, I’ve learned, pretty common in academia, but which can seem like impossible hurdles that stand between someone and their ability to go by their intended name, which EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE A RIGHT TO DO.

(1) I spent ~7 years publishing under a name that did not match my legal name

(2) I successfully changed my name midstream (and incidentally, my legal and publication/professional names still don’t quite match.)

I want to point out that this can come up in MANY contexts, not just a name change at marriage. Two I’ve discussed with people are a gender transition where your social identity and your paperwork don’t “match”, either temporarily or permanently, and the choice to make a name more closely conform to US cultural expectations (like dropping and using just one of multiple surnames.) It can also go in either direction: when you want to adopt a professional name that doesn’t match your legal name, OR when you are having a legal name change that you don’t want to bring to your work.

I PROMISE YOU this is possible! And in fact, during those 7 years I found out that many of my female colleagues had legal names they’d changed at marriage but didn’t use at work. It’s not friction-free, but the primary point that many people care about is journals, and I have never encountered a journal that needed legal documentation of the name I wanted to publish under.

I also blissfully submitted grant applications to the US government, and there was sufficiently little issue when I actually received one that I have no memory if I needed to do anything extra. The main pain points have been airline tickets and other financial things - I always review my legal name if anynone is booking a flight for me, even if I’m pretty sure they know.

Two things I want to acknowledge here are that institutions vary, and your appetite for risk may vary. I know people at universities where things like email addresses would only be issued under a legal name, who have gone through tons of bureaucratic hurdles to fix this. Most of the people I know who encountered this were new professors, who were eventually able to succeed by enlisting their dept head or appealing to a dean to argue that their professional identity was important enough to make an exception.

I’ve been willing to risk this kind of fight in part because I checked out of the academic job market/tenure-track game - taking the time to politely insist on being addressed correctly is a small kind of activism I’ve decided is a part of my career. And if I ever do encounter an institution that is totally unwilling to deal with me and my name, well then putting that organization on blast and trying to get things changed for people who come after me is also something I’ll be happy to do.

Changing your name after you’ve published or have a community that knows you

First off, if you are not trans, be very thankful to the trans community because they have GREAT resources on the nuts & bolts of accomplishing a social name change. I found the tools/guides that exist for women getting married to be somewhat less useful, I think because I was several years into the marriage, and not in a context where it’s the assumed automatic choice. Also, these guides have often been written relatively recently and are well tailored for operating on the internet, not just the post office.

(Side note, if you change your name because you are a woman who has gotten married to a man in the last few weeks, you get a special kind of ‘pass’ on some bureaucratic steps because people think it’s obvious, they don’t come up with reasons to oppose you, and they let you slide on minor details. This really specific kind of privilege was mildly hilarious as my husband & I went through tandem name changes - there were a few things I skated through while he had to provide additional docs and trips to the RMV.)

As an academic specifically, you have a really key & easy tool: go get yourself an ORCID ID (actually do this if you aren’t changing your name also). This is a unique identifier for academics, so it’s great BOTH for tracking your identity over a name change, AND distinguishing you from people with similar or identical names. Get your ORCID ID, and list both your primary/current name and any alternatives you are comfortable disclosing. ORCID solves almost all my name-change issues, and it’s getting more common all the time. I list it on my CV, and also just bold my name, in whatever form it was listed, on each of my publications.

The big thing though, is just to get comfortable announcing the change and correcting people. Writing this post I was surprised to see my first announcement was under two years ago, but at this point I’m used to encountering an old version and politely insisting on an update. The first few times I had to do this I was very nervous to make people feel bad or put them to extra trouble, but it quickly got easier, and at this point it doesn’t faze me - I get a tiny ping of joy to get an opportunity to use my real name, in fact.

A major caveat: I’m in a ‘simple’ case - my name change has only the stigma of “lady changed her name at marriage” attached, and hearing my old name doesn’t hurt me. I’m encouraged to see some journals start to provide backwards-propagating updates for trans authors, and we need more. My hope is that the forward-propagating name change solutions I’m using will open the door to more - we’re not done yet. In the meantime, part of the reason I do things like being a stickler for my correct name is to give people practice correcting and using someone’s real name when requested.

[More throat clearing: Another reason twitter has been good for me is you don’t have to write a conclusion. End of blog post.]