Deadname walking pic

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, updating your names in the publication record was not possible. To change bound journals is, of course, impossible, but in the e-world things have progressed, with many publishers now recognizing the importance of this issue and have overt name change policies that allow for the update of databases and PDFs. I am delighted to report that as of March of this year ASCB’s in-house journals, Molecular Biology of the Cell and CBE – Life Sciences Education have joined the throng. In contrast, COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics)—to which most journals are signatories—still does not have a formal policy in this area, despite having last reported on their working group back in 2021.

In September of 2022, I wrote a blog for ASCB describing progress in this area and I refer you to this for a deeper discussion of the Trans issues surrounding name changes, as well as the groups and leaders whose advocacy has helped bring these changes about. As I signed off from that article, I was setting out to test these policies with some of my own publications to see how readily updates could be made. Here, I bring you an update on this adventure.

To test the system, I 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 could easily find an overt policy, I made direct requests for the change(s). Where it was hard to find, I sent simple inquiries and quickly established that all the relevant publishers (AAAS, American Society for Microbiology (ASM) Journals, Wiley, The Company of Biologists, and Rockefeller Press) had a process and so I set to work.

Rockefeller Press (2 papers), The Company of Biologists (5 papers), and Wiley (1 paper) all had highly efficient and attentive processes where I proved to be the limiting factor; all got back to me within 24 hours of my initial inquiry, ran through some options, and got on with it. At this point (10 months later), dissemination to PubMed has long been complete. There was no response to my initial approach to ASM Journals (1 paper); however, a recent follow-up inquiry that copied in the Editor in Chief at the journal received prompt attention from the Production Editor, and I believe will be resolved shortly.

AAAS deserves its own paragraph. ‘Science’ has long been a forum for reporting and writing about the experience of transgender scientists, so my expectations were high, and indeed they were initially very responsive. However, I immediately ran into a technical issue when trying to get back on to their ‘content tracking system’ (apparently a necessary step). After about a dozen emails in the initial 48 hours trying (and failing!) to resolve this my contact promised “…to move it on to the desk of the folks in copyediting….”. After hearing nothing for several months, I prodded, and the technical issue finally got fixed and things are now moving. I belabor this tale because along the way I ran into another issue when it emerged that I actually had two accounts in their system: One was in my deadname and one in my new name—I am still not sure how that happened. The good folks at Science immediately merged these, but since the message thread in the ticket was simply entitled ‘name change request’, had been almost entirely focused on the technical issues, and action was so delayed, the original request for the paper was lost in the confusion and the ticket was transiently marked ‘resolved and closed’. Anyway, this has been sorted out and I believe that the copy editors will shortly be working on the change.

The good news is that changes have been, or will be, made in all the journals I contacted, but in some cases, the process will need some nurturing, as in all things.

What has been interesting in this process is that there have been choices to be made. Prime among these was whether I just wanted to quietly change the name or if I wanted to have a formal correction issued by the journal. Even though the correction would not necessarily be of an explicit ‘Fiona was exchanged for Fred’ but that ‘the byline was updated’, I opted for the former since it would not attract attention to the fact that ‘something happened’. Those of us in the LGBTQ+ community are constantly ‘coming out’, and after switching fields a couple of times, there are coauthors I am no longer in touch with and probably unaware of my transition. So, I decided it would be tiresome to spend the next 6 months explaining myself to all these people and I would let sleeping dogs lie. In a similar vein, with the rise of the ORCID, I was offered the choice of associating this with a 1987 paper—well before such things existed. A check of several other contemporaneous papers in that journal showed that authors did not regularly do that, so again I declined.

Of course, there’s more to change than just the paper byline. Acknowledgments of grants ‘awarded to’ needed to be updated to ‘C.M.T.’, as did attributions of ‘data not shown’ or ‘personal communication’ within the text. Then there are citation lists, journal news, and views that might highlight papers. I feel that it might be an unreasonable burden for journals to be asked to do multiple updates as you change bylines on other papers cited by their papers. It would take the rest of one’s career to update each paper chronologically to allow the next bibliography to be resolved in one fell swoop; However, if you are confident that you can get updates for all those papers, a bibliography could be updated at this stage in anticipation of this. Either way, it’s complicated, and no doubt some librarians shudder at the prospect of having such transient dislocations in citation chains. To lessen such complications, I think I would probably recommend trying to request changes to all one’s papers in as short a time as your emotional energy will allow.

All in all, I would call my efforts something of a success. I feel that it will be hard for anyone with a long publishing history to completely update all traces of a deadname, but since the key paper bylines are what count at the grant application and university level, exposure from things like initials and citations will be limited to those who delve deeply into each paper’s content. Thus, I plan to try to do the rest in the next few months. A spot check of three papers revealed that the Web of Science still harbors my deadname, so there is more work to be done there. A more dynamic crosstalk between databases to keep things up to date would be welcome.

I am truly grateful that so many publishers have finally found enough flexibility in the notion of a rigid historical record to help trans scientists. But my final thought is to highlight the broader benefits that have emerged from our struggle to ditch our deadnames: Most policies I read are not limiting name changes to trans folk. For example, ASCB allows for name changes “for reasons including marriage, divorce, gender identity change, religious conversion, and other personal reasons.” It seems like icing on the cake that in accommodating trans folk, many others will also now benefit.

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: clairet@psu.edu