Picking her new name led Tess Tanenbaum to ponder many questions. Am I Josie or a Hanna? Should it sound similar to her previous masculine name? What will it look like as a signature? She began to walk around with a shortlist in her pocket. Ultimately she picked Theresa Jean, or Tess, because it made her full name sound like a pulp detective character or a superhero, and is reminiscent of her daughter’s middle name, Tesla. On July 4, 2019, Tess came out as transgender—her own independence day.
But burying her old name wasn’t easy, especially when it came to the research she had published on game design and storytelling. In spring 2020, Tanenbaum gave her class at University of California, Irvine, copies of some of her past work along with an assignment. But one resourceful student used Google Scholar, the company’s service for searching academic literature, to find other publications, some of which contained her former name, or deadname. The class was virtual and students shared their finished work through a Discord server, and her old name was posted in front of the whole class. There was no harmful intent, but Tanenbaum had an intense feeling of needing to hide. “I had this profound trauma response, and it compromised my ability to evaluate the student,” she says.
Tanenbaum is one of many academics that have urged Google in recent years to give people more agency over how their names appear on its service. She and other critics of Google Scholar say it subjects trans academics and researchers to deadnaming, the unwelcome and even traumatic mention of a transgender person’s name from before they transitioned. “Google Scholar remains a source of ongoing and active harm to anybody who changes their name, especially transgender people,” Tanenbaum says.Google Scholar allows researchers to change their name as it appears on their profile page, where researchers curate a list of their publications, and will update author names on papers if a publisher has made an update. But even if a person has changed their name on Google Scholar, search results can still show their previous name on papers where it has not been updated. The company’s name change policy puts Scholar out of step with major publishers, other academic search engines, and national laboratories. More than 60 publishers have some policy that gives transgender researchers the right to change their names on previously published work, including giants like Elsevier and Springer.
When researcher Robyn Speer began her transition and started requesting updates to her name in 2019, she found that sites like ResearchGate, Semantic Scholar, and the Internet Archive’s search engine for scholarly documents got rid of her old name within a week. Journals and conference proceedings could take months. But she’s still deadnamed on Google Scholar, where citations of papers under her previous name can appear in search results for her current name.
Searches for ConceptNet, a software project that helps computers understand the meaning of words which she has worked on since 2005, surface results that include her old name. Some come from journals that are no longer active, meaning Speer can’t ask the publisher to update her name.
“The changes we’re asking for would require Google to give authors control over their own information, and I think that just doesn’t fit into Google’s worldview,” Speer says. “In Google’s worldview, if algorithms disagree with people then the algorithm is right and the people are wrong.”
In 2019, Speer’s complaints led to the creation of a bug report inside Google flagging the problems trans researchers have with Google Scholar, according to multiple people familiar with the matter. In May this year, a Google employee responding to a tweet by Speer said the bug report remains open and categorized as high priority.
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Google declined to comment on that bug report or the course of action a researcher should take to change a name if a publisher no longer exists. Google spokesperson Joshua Cruz describes Scholar as a search engine that indexes and reflects papers as they are published on the web. “Google Scholar’s goal continues to be to make it possible for all researchers worldwide to highlight their research contributions for their colleagues to discover and learn from,” Cruz says.
However, Cruz says an author’s deadname will continue to appear in search results until the publisher updates the original document and Google algorithms later crawl that document. Cruz says that can prevent hostile actors from imitating a researcher. To speed up name changes in Google Scholar search results, publishers like the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and ScienceDirect can notify Google that it should crawl a work again to pick up the changes.
Trans researchers told WIRED that Google Scholar policy, which relies on publishers to make name changes, can go wrong, and requires them to repeatedly out themselves to colleagues. Name changes have led some journals to issue correction notices in the past, an outcome that can lead peers to question whether the author engaged in bad science. Should a journal require approval by coauthors to change a name, the disapproval or death of a coauthor can block the change, preventing any update on Google Scholar. If a journal has a policy that requires approval from a conference chair, the author has to track that person down.
People change their names for many reasons, including divorce, religion, or to avoid mispronunciation of an unfamiliar name. A name change can be particularly precarious for academics because citations to work published under a name can be like currency, used by peers and managers to follow and judge the worth of a person’s work. Fear that a name change will result in lost citation credits leads some researchers to keep their last name after marriage, and some trans researchers to pick names after transition with the same first letter as their birth name.
Since its launch in November 2004, Google Scholar has become a popular and powerful tool for academics in part because, like the Google search engine, it uses algorithms to scrape and rank material like conference proceedings, patents, case law, and research journals. Search the web for a researcher and their Google Scholar profile typically appears as one of the first results. Since it’s the most readily available form of data about an academic’s body of work, information presented there may influence whether a person gets a job, promotion, tenure, or grant funding.
Some of the first complaints about Google Scholar’s handling of names came in 2011 from a woman who changed her name after marriage. Many people who seek name changes on previously published work do not identify as transgender, but deadnaming can be offensive or even dangerous, particularly in places where being transgender is criminalized.
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In 2019, when Tanenbaum started trying to change her name on previously published works, she discovered that none of the 15 academic venues featuring her work had a process in place to do so. She also began to work on establishing better name change policies in academic publishing, including by helping the ACM become the first major academic publisher to create a name change policy.
In 2020, Tanenbaum and other academics created the Name Change Policy Working Group to help journals implement processes for name updates, and help trans authors navigate them. The following year, for the nonprofit Committee on Publication Ethics, which works with academic publishers, the group outlined five principles for name changes for trans authors. Those principles include allowing name changes without legal documentation or burdensome processes, as well as the comprehensive removal of all previous mention of an author’s name.
The same year, pressure on Google to act began to grow. In August 2021, Speer created the website called Google Scholar Has Failed Us, which asks researchers to refrain from using the service until people are given a way to change their name everywhere on the service. Speer and more than 150 signatories say they want Google to make name changes carry over to Google Scholar search results, that researchers need a way to alert Google Scholar if their old name continues to appear in search results, and that the company should provide a contact who can help an author encountering problems.
In September 2021, Tanenbaum gave an invited presentation to more than 100 Google employees, detailing how the refusal to allow name changes functions as a form of discrimination against trans researchers that imposes extra work on a marginalized group.
In November 2021, Google Scholar was on the agenda of a meeting among research leaders at Google and Queer in AI, a group that promotes greater inclusion in AI research. The group had previously rejected sponsorship from Google in response to the firing of Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell, coleads of the company's ethical AI team, but also because of Google’s treatment of LGBTQ employees and Google Scholar’s name change policies.
Just as Tanenbaum emphasized in her talk for Google employees, Queer in AI members explained that Google Scholar policy violates the privacy and dignity of trans researchers. Multiple Queer in AI members who attended the meeting say that Marian Croak, a vice president assigned to lead responsible AI work last year after Gebru was fired, acknowledged that deadnaming on Google Scholar could threaten the safety of trans authors; Google’s head of research Jeff Dean expressed concern about a risk of fraud, people present recalled.
Arjun Subramonian, a PhD student at UCLA who joined the meeting, was unimpressed. The suggestion that a vague worry about fraud outweighed the safety of trans researchers struck them as “transphobic” and “bullshit,” they say.
Another attendee of the meeting, Luca Soldaini, works for a competitor of Google Scholar, called Semantic Scholar, operated by the Allen Institute for AI. Soldaini says Semantic Scholar has seen no evidence of fraud since adopting policies that accommodate transgender researchers. “If you make finding a deadname so easy, you are complicit if someone uses it for violence,” they say.
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Many researchers who have petitioned Google over its approach to trans names report being mystified by the lack of action when so many other companies have tackled the issue in some fashion. Tanenbaum says people in a position to push for change have kept their heads down because they fear retaliation for taking a stand on the behalf of people who lack power.
Google employees who identify as Black, women, and queer have previously complained that the company’s culture can be difficult for those who advocate for them. “My sense of the situation is that the environment at Google right now doesn’t feel safe for people to try to push forward major equity changes like this,” she says.
Google has made some changes in how Google Scholar operates in the past year. Last month, the service began to allow researchers to connect two names to a single account. This seems to solve the issue faced by people who change their name after marriage or simplify a name that’s often mispronounced, but is less helpful to transgender researchers. When a former Google researcher tried the new feature this month, she reported that it made her deadname public. The potentially dangerous issue faced by transgender people remains unresolved.
Updated 9-1-2022, 11:50 am EDT: This story was updated to correct Arjun Subramonian and Luca Soldaini's pronouns.