Call me by my name

Many transgender people make a legal name change as part of their transition to present in their preferred gender. A key part of this process is to leave behind their original so-called “deadname,” the persistence of which will “out” them to others and can trigger bouts of dysphoria for some. Shedding a deadname is particularly hard for transgender scientists if they transition after their publication stream has begun because these records constantly appear in things like grant applications and promotion and tenure decisions.

A few years ago, when I changed my name as part of my transition, I reached out to the good folks at PubMed and some journals to try and update my publications. This request was met with a firm but polite “No.” They explained that publications were a “moment in time” and should not be retroactively altered—an almost philosophical objection based on a rigid view of the scholarly record. Even BioRxiv, where one of our preprints was publicly available during review, said there could be no alteration or substitution, just an addition of a newer version. Could they not see that having two names rattling around would “out” me to reviewers of grants, promotion and tenure decisions, journalists, and potentially everyone else who might be curious about me or my science?

As someone old enough to have held a bound journal in their hands and sent-and-received reprints by snail mail, I understand that the print editions in all the subscribing libraries could never be changed. But to reflexively extend this policy to the dynamic electronic world of databases, eBooks and PDFs made no sense to me. Moreover, creative coders who could work out a way to manage this (with input from transfolk, of course!) must surely abound at PubMed, The Web of Science, and the like. My temporary solution—rooted in my preprint days—has been to keep a set of PDFs where I had edited my name and send these when I needed to get copies to people. This workaround only works for a small minority of direct connections and does not permit me to change more official documents, such as my CV or NIH Biosketch, and necessitates glaring footnotes where I must out myself, explain that I changed my name, and risk exposure to explicit or implicit bias.

Over the last few years, awareness of this issue has increased, and many comments and complaints from other trans scientists have been published. There have also been accounts of far more tenacious attempts than mine, such Theresa Jean Tanenbaum’s. She revealed that part of some publishers’ hesitancy is rooted in policies designed to prevent fraud. A more extended article from The Name Change Working Group explicitly lays out the social, physical, and psychological harms of persistent deadnames and provides a point-by-point rebuttal to most of the common complaints raised by publishers. In addition, the Committee on Publishing Ethics (COPE), which lists over 13,000 members from the publishing industry, has also hosted such opinion pieces and formed a trans-inclusive working group that produced a series of best practices in late 2021. However, in my recent exchange with their operations manager, COPE still does not have a formal policy document.

A more recent commentary indicates that the publishing world may, at last, have awoken to this issue. With a bit of poking around, I readily found that several large scientific publishing houses have all developed trans-inclusive policies since my initial enquiries. For example, Springer Nature, which publishes over 3,000 journals, and the Science family of journals have introduced trans-inclusive name change policies. An additional 16 societies, publishing houses, and databases joined 17 U.S. National Laboratories in 2021 with similar commitments.

This is all good news if the journals truly follow through. General busyness has meant that I have not had the bandwidth to think about this since I read some of these articles about 18 months ago—it was time to see what I could do for myself. The aforementioned article in BioRxiv went to press with my new name in Nature Cell Biology, but this was a pre-publication alteration, so I did not count that as more than a minor triumph.

To truly stress-test such policies, I dipped back into my personal Jurassic and approached five publishers for name changes on ten papers stretching back to the 1980s in Science, Journal of Bacteriology, Molecular Microbiology, The Journal of Cell Science, Development, and The Journal of Cell Biology. Where I knew there was an overt policy, I made direct requests for the change(s). Where I was ignorant (and a simple search for “transgender” and “name change” did not take me directly to a policy), I made enquiries of each journal, then followed up as appropriate. What I found in my (highly unscientific) sampling seems to be good news: I was directed to trans-inclusive name change policies in all the cases where I had to ask. So, in addition to the examples cited above, all of the following publishers now have trans-inclusive name change policies: The American Society for Microbiology, Wiley, The Company of Biologists, and Rockefeller Press. The next step is to wait and see if all my papers are updated as promised, so I will return to this topic in a future posting to share these experiences and outcomes.

Finally, I could hardly post a blog at ASCB without considering our Society’s policy, so I sent an enquiry to the good folks at Molecular Biology of the Cell. The prompt reply was: “MBoC does not have an official policy on retroactive name changes, and I’m glad you are bringing this issue to our attention. [….] I hope that we can implement a policy in short order.” I hope this will be so, and I look forward to seeing the rest of the publishing community play their part in bringing about these necessary changes.

About the Author:

Claire Thomas is an Associate Professor of Biology and of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park. She and her lab are interested in the role of the cortical F-actin cytoskeleton in apicobasal polarity, protein trafficking, growth, and morphogenesis, working mainly in Drosophila. Claire is a member of the ASCB LGBTQ+ Committee. Email: