[EMBO Rep. 2008 December; 9(12): 1171–1174.
What’s in a name?
An international author identification system could allow scientists to receive credit for all their scientific contributions and would solve the problem of identity in a world of limited surnames.
In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare (1546–1616) asked: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” (2.2.1–2). But, unlike Shakespeare’s characters, whose names were a burden to them, names for scientists are extremely important and are attached to discoveries, publications, careers and even fame. In her poem Sacred Emily, American poet Getrude Stein (1874–1946) wrote, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”, which is reminiscent of the trouble that scientists face. However, unlike two roses, two scientists with identical names are extremely different. Indeed, this growing problem of how to unambiguously identify members of an ever-growing international community has triggered a serious debate.
Matthew Falagas, Director of the Alfa Institute of Biomedical Sciences (Athens, Greece) and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine (Boston, MA, USA) described the problem. “Every country has its own common names: Smith and Jones in English-speaking countries; here in Greece we have Papapapolous; in China, Li is very common,” he said. “When you enter the last name, or even with the initial of the first name, you may produce thousands of papers; you cannot understand who produced what. The result is that you have difficulties finding the best collaborator or the best person to ask to do peer review.” Falagas, who serves on the editorial board of the scientific journal PLoS One (San Francisco, CA, USA), said that he has heard of cases in which mistaken identity has resulted in the wrong person being invited to work on a project, appear on a television programme or to undertake the peer review of an article.
Names are also important with regard to the funding of research. Kyle Brown, who founded ResearchCrossroads (San Mateo, CA, USA; www.researchcrossroads.org), explained that the company started as a database to help funding agencies and researchers look up who was getting money from government and private foundations, including the National Institutes of Health (Bethesda, MD, USA), the National Science Foundation (NSF; Arlington, VA, USA) and the Community Research and Development Information Service run by the European Union (CORDIS; Brussels, Belgium). Brown discovered the confusion inherent in similar names almost immediately as researchers contacted him to try to correct their information posted on the ResearchCrossroads website. “We struggle with this constantly,” he said. “I get e-mails every day or two saying: ‘My profile is combined with this other guy’s profile. Can you help us untangle them?’ And we’ll do that.” But he added that this is often a tough assignment as scientists can change jobs and even names, and do not use their middle initials consistently.
The same problem applies to publishing, in which it is not always clear whether the authors of different articles are the same person or not. “I’d love a user of Nature.com to be able to click on an author’s name and to be able to see a list of everything that we publish by them,” commented Timor Hannay, Publishing Director of Nature.com (London, UK). “And that kind of thing, which seems really trivial, should be very straightforward, but actually isn’t because we don’t have identifiers associated with them […] We’ve got a world in which scientists have assigned numbers to all kinds of things: to genes, to species, to stars, to molecules, to the articles they write. The one thing they left out was themselves,” he said, adding, “it does create real problems for us as publishers wanting to provide certain services.”
Yet, Hannay also has an idea of how to solve this problem: “A global author ID does bring you the same benefits that you already have from [a] unique article ID, and you can locate an article very quickly and easily online if you know what its DOI [digital object identifier] is.” However, despite the elegance and simplicity of the idea, introducing a unique author ID for scientists is anything but a simple measure, as Peter Binfield, Managing Editor of PLoS One commented: “It’s not a simple problem at all. I have worked at a few publishing companies and nobody is able to make unique author IDs happen within their own databases. [Authors] may submit with a different middle initial, or [they may have] moved institutions. Even our internal databases get incredibly messy and cluttered. It’s hard to keep anything consistent.”
[continue at EMBO Reports]