Retroactive Name Changes in Astronomical Publications

If you’re active on astronomy Twitter, you’ve probably seen a lot of discussion lately about academic journals’ policies about retroactively changing names on publications. The labor and roadblocks in the process can add a great deal of difficulty to the academic lives of transgender and nonbinary* researchers. Many transgender people change their name from that assigned at birth to one that better fits their gender, but if they do so after having any work published they may face a difficult situation. In some journals, one can retroactively have publications corrected to show their true/chosen name. For other journals, people are left with the choice between either revealing their deadname and outing themselves, or no longer claiming certain past work on their CVs. Additionally, some cisgender astronomers may change their names for reasons such as marriage or religion. 

There are two parts to resolving the disconnection between publications with different names. First, it can be difficult to find all of a person’s past work by searching their current name, if certain publications still use their old name. But, even with this problem resolved, the problem of outing trans people remains when their old name is visible. So the second part of the solution is to have the instances of their previous name changed on old papers. 

Some recent discussions were sparked by a series of tweets from Dr. Elspeth Lee. Her experiences caught the attention of many friends and allies, who have since been pushing for change (more on that later).



Publishing policies

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) is currently developing guidance for author name changes after article publication. They have already, however, published a post led by Professor Tess Tanenbaum about five guiding principles and best practices for the process:

  1. Accessibility: Name changes should not require legal documents or unnecessary labor from the author making the request.
  2. Comprehensiveness: The change should remove all instances of the author’s previous name from the publisher’s records.
  3. Invisibility: The change should not draw attention to the author’s changed name or gender identity.
  4. Expediency and simplicity: The process should be quick and non-bureaucratic.
  5. Recurrence and maintenance: Publishers should regularly audit their materials to ensure that changed names are maintained.

Professor Tanenbaum also wrote an insightful article in Nature about why this matters to her and to other transgender astronomers.

Here are the policies of a few major astronomy publishers & article hosts (as of June 10, 2021):

  • American Astronomical Society (AAS) Journals (Astrophysical Journal, Astronomical Journal, Astrophysical Journal Letters, Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series, Planetary Science Journal, Research Notes) [IOP Publishing]: An author can fill out a form to request a name change, which does not require legal documentation or a reason for the request (more info here).
  • Astronomy & Astrophysics (A&A) [EDP Sciences]: Currently, no post-publication name changes are allowed. Note: On June 4, 2021 A&A tweeted that their editors are in contact with the EDP Board of Directors about changing this.
  • Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) [Oxford University Press]: Currently, at an author’s request, they will update their name on the HTML version but not the PDF. Note: They have stated on Twitter that they are working toward a solution with OUP.
  • [Cornell University]: An author may request a name change through the user support portal or their help email. They will incorporate name changes into the original LaTeX file and recompile PDFs.
  • Astrophysical Data System (ADS) [Harvard]: An author may email them all the names they have published under, and ADS will store the names as synonyms, showing results for all of the listed names when one is searched. They also plan to follow the COPE policies and change authors’ names, regardless of whether the original publisher does so.

For information on more journals/publishers, check out this spreadsheet compiled by Dr. Jost Migenda with help from the community to track which follow COPE principles.

Trans authors’ experiences

At the AAS Meeting 238, the Committee for Sexual and Gender Minorities in Astronomy (SGMA) met and discussed this issue. Jessica Mink from the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics presented the history and state of the issue, as well as her personal experiences. She acknowledged that much of this has been easier for her, as a senior astronomical software developer, than for early career people and those on the job market. She was able to get ADS updated very easily, as she personally knew and worked down the hall from the person responsible. All of her work on ADS can now be found by searching either her current or previous name. ORCiD is another way to help pull together publications, as each person is assigned a number that won’t need to change when names do, but names are still used in citations, so it’s not a complete solution. 

Jessica made the personal decision not to change her name in previous publications because she is an activist and wants people to know she is trans. Dr. Anne Archibald transitioned near the start of graduate school, but had one paper published under her previous name, limiting how secretive she can be about being transgender. She decided early on to assume that everyone knows she is transgender and, now that she has a faculty position, has decided to be a bit more out as it could make a difference for younger trans astronomers. Professor Jan Eldridge has also changed her current name but not that on older publications. She has been publishing under her initials for some time (JJ), but plans to go back and get the older papers updated, especially those with her full old name. 

A common theme among my conversations with transgender astronomers is that they have been able to make some progress on replacing their old name professionally, but they haven’t been able to thoroughly have every old paper updated. Adding the synonyms on ADS seems to be one of the earliest/easiest steps for them, but certain publications just do not change names of past papers under any circumstances. These policies must be changed in order for transgender people to be safe and comfortable with the collection of their past work.

What is being done to fix this?

In early June 2021, a community of astronomers came together to push for change in these outdated policies. One personal action many astronomers have taken is somewhat of a boycott, where they refuse to review for or submit work to Astronomy & Astrophysics until they allow name changes. Coincidentally, one such astronomer, Professor Caroline Morley, received a request to review right as these conversations started and shared their response:


PhD student Emily Hunt led a group of astronomers in writing an open letter to the A&A Board of Directors, which anyone can sign on to. They have had over 700 signatures as of Wednesday morning, June 9. At the SGMA meeting, members also shared that AAS journal editors and the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CWSA) are working on letters to the A&A and MNRAS editors. CWSA also shared a statement on their Women In Astronomy blog.

Many of the astronomers who contributed their experiences to this work have emphasized what a large allied and collaborative effort it has been to work toward improved policies. An easy thing allies can do to help is to have conversations with editors and colleagues to help them understand the issue and why it matters. In addition to the professional concerns of papers under multiple names, Professor Jan Eldridge emphasized that, “just that by recognizing the new name of a person who changes it re-affirms their identity. Beyond any of the other things it’s a very simple way to accept and support a trans person.”


*I have used the word “transgender” throughout the article to describe people who have changed their name due to their gender identity, but it is important to note that not all nonbinary people identify as transgender, and that not all transgender and nonbinary people change their names.

Edited by Alex Gough, Lili Alderson, Luna Zagorac

Cover image credit: Laurie Raye

About Macy Huston

I am a fifth year graduate student at Penn State University studying Astronomy & Astrophysics. My current projects focus on technosignatures, also referred to as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), and on microlensing searches for exoplanets.

Discover more from astrobites

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Leave a Reply