123

I am a senior undergraduate about to publish my first academic paper, and have been thinking about taking an academic pseudonym to make myself easier to identify.

My full name is shared by at least three famous people (including one celebrity and one international athlete), and at least two people inside academia (one of whom works in my field). This is my major reason for wanting to change. In modern academia, it seems online identity/SEO is becoming increasingly important, and I don't want to have to compete for namespace with other people, who are:

  1. more famous than I'll likely ever be; and
  2. already have established careers and goodwill under that name.

Basically, it seems like it could be a real hindrance when trying to get my career off the ground.

I am quite attached to my first name, so I'm thinking about changing my last name only to an ancient variant of it. It's a similar name, but much less common, and it couldn't be mistaken as a misspelling of my real name (think Busher vs Bouchier, or Lombard vs Lambert). I can't find evidence of anyone online using that name, so it seems to solve all the problems mentioned above.

I hope to continue into academia and become a professor, in which case I would publish and be known professionally under the new name. I'd rather not legally change my name, or have to change my name within my personal life, so it would be a situation of having separate professional and personal names. In the event I don't succeed/continue into academia, I could always just revert to my real name (unlikely that my published work will be relevant anyhow).

I'd like to get advice from you all, especially those of you that use a pseudonym in your academic work. A couple questions I have:

  1. Does this seem like a worthwhile idea?
  2. Could there be any issues with having different legal and professional names in a university IT system?
  3. Should I change my undergrad enrolment to be under my new academic name? How about when applying to postgrad/PhD programs?
  4. If I don't do (3), could/should I get degrees reprinted (once I have an established career) under my academic name, rather than my personal name?
  5. Are there any hairy issues that could arise from this, which I might not have considered?

Thanks!

  • 5
    I cannot imagine that (3,4) is possible without a legal change of name. Welcome to the site! – user104541 Feb 18 at 11:12
  • 65
    Adding or changing a middle name or initial(s) can be a lightweight way of doing this. If e.g. your legal name is John Busher and you publish as John Bouchier, this will need explaining to every employer you work for, and probably also publishers, conferences, and anyone else you have financial/contractual dealings with. (It won’t be obvious that the John Busher on your formal paperwork and the John Bouchier on your publications/website are the same person.) If you publish as (say) John Quentin Busher, this is just as distinctive, but much less likely to raise eyebrows or cause confusion. – PLL Feb 18 at 11:17
  • 48
    "No way! Why should I change? He's the one who sucks." -- Michael Bolton, Office Space – Kimball Feb 18 at 15:28
  • 11
    This topic has come up a lot. Related: this, this, this, and this. – Dan Romik Feb 18 at 16:24
  • 18
    I guessed your name from your description right away. And when I saw your online name for SE, I understood that I guessed correctly. You may want to use a pseudonym at least for your SE account.... – Captain Emacs Feb 18 at 16:39

10 Answers 10

42

If you have a middle name, then you could add a hyphen to derive a new name, e.g., Alpha Bravo Charlie could become Alpha Bravo-Charlie.

Does this seem like a worthwhile idea?

Yes

Could there be any issues with having different legal and professional names in a university IT system?

Yes, but this will vary university to university. An obvious problem might be the assignment of email addresses, e.g., Alpha.Bravo@university.edu, but this can be resolved by a polite email.

Should I change my undergrad enrolment to be under my new academic name?

This mightn't be possible, you'd need to justify (perhaps legally) a reason (which you cannot legally prove).

How about when applying to postgrad/PhD programs?

You need to be careful: Don't commit fraud. Being employed under a non-legal name is possibly illegal, publishing under a non-legal name is not.

could/should I get degrees reprinted (once I have an established career) under my academic name, rather than my personal name?

Some institutes may question a certificate in the "wrong" name, others won't, many won't check.

Are there any hairy issues that could arise from this, which I might not have considered?

You might inadvertently commit fraud...

EDIT: I had assumed a full name clash (that's what the OP wrote). If there's merely a partial name clash, e.g., Alpha Charlie, and the OP has a middle name, then I suggest that the OP simply uses their full name, e.g., Alpha Bravo Charlie, as their name, that is, they always use their full name and they don't drop their middle name.

EDIT II: The comments suggest using an initial, e.g., Alpha B Charlie or Alpha B. Charlie, but I'm not sure whether this helps for SEO; a full name, e.g., Alpha Bravo Charlie, seems more likely to succeed in terms of SEO.

  • 10
    Using the middle names is, perhaps, the best idea. – Solar Mike Feb 18 at 11:19
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    I like the answer. I would add one thing to "applying": Apply under your real name for legal reasons, but mention both your civil and academic name up-front in your CV to avoid confusion. – yo' Feb 18 at 11:49
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    "[email address assignment] can be resolved by a polite email." This depends heavily on the University. My current one is happy to hand out email aliases, but I've been at others who take a hardline "your email address is autodetermined from your official name when you first joined, end of discussion" even for people who legally changed names while there (e.g. through marriage). Heck, I've been at a place which even refused to allow you to change the "display" portion of the address in the internal email directory (LDAP). – R.M. Feb 18 at 16:08
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    As an alternative to using your full middle name, there are plenty of cases where just the middle name initial is used for disambiguation. John F Kennedy and George W Bush, for two immediate examples. – Graham Feb 19 at 8:19
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    @user2768 JFK, perhaps, although we're looking with the benefit of hindsight as a more famous "John Kennedy" than the alternatives. For George W Bush though, he always used his middle initial to differentiate himself from his father. George HW Bush was never (or rarely) referred to as "George HW Bush" before his son's presidency - he was simply referred to as "George Bush", and his not-yet-famous son was "George W". – Graham Feb 19 at 10:18
50

Complementary to your own suggestions and the ones in the other answers, you could consider creating an ORCID (or of course any other unique researcher/author ID) and using it in all publications. The benefits here:

  • By adding a unique identifier to your name, the name collisions can be resolved.
  • If your change your name at a certain point (e.g., if you decide to change your name as you suggested in the question), the ID will remain the same. Therefore, you even might be able to postpone the decision whether to change your name.
  • Since you mention online identity and SEO: At least ORCID comes with a profile web site (I am not familiar with other ID systems), where you can add your personal information and even maintain a list of your publications. Usually, a link to this profile is added to the publication, so readers can follow it. As to search engine optimization, I am not expert here but I would guess that the outcome of those algorithms improves if there is a unique ID that groups your contributions together.

Of course, all those ID systems are quite recent and might not be accepted (yet) by the journals and/or researchers in your field. Nevertheless, I would give it a try since it comes at no cost (which I presume won't be the case for changing legal documents).

15

A former colleague has effectively swapped their middle and family names for publishing purposes (I believe their given middle name is also in some way inherited). The now surname is (for native English-speakers) simpler and more natural to spell and pronounce than the legal one, and they use the initial of the legal surname as a middle initial. The new name is simultaneously academically unique and intuitive for people from many cultures (working in English).

Applying this to Dorothy Hodgkin as an example would give Dorothy H.Crowfoot.

This is a slightly bigger change than the one you propose, and so far seems to work well.

11

Just passing through, I'm not an academic and can't speak to the specifics of academia. But I am someone with an interest in the legal use of pseudonyms.

The legalities of using a name other than the one on your birth certificate vary, obviously, by legal jurisdiction. In the USA, there are some Federal issues, but substantially it's up the the individual states, and their attitudes and procedures around this vary widely.

There are two populations that care very much about this issue: trans people and sole proprietors (people in business for themselves, who have not incorporated). This can be an excellent and informative lead for finding information specific to a jurisdiction: looking into how both those populations go about changing their names or working/functioning under something not (yet, or fully) their legal name.

For instance, I was recently surprised to learn that California has extremely liberal rules for name change, to the effect of, so long as you're not deceiving people as to your identity to commit crimes, you are whoever you say you are. Legally. This is called "name change by usage". Other states might consider that fraud.

Meanwhile, most(?) states have some way for people to officially register a name under which they do business. Sometimes this is called a "doing business as" or "DBA". This is what very small business owners do, when they are a "sole proprietor" (legal, IRS term, which means they are their business) and want to have a business name. Note, this is entirely different from incorporation. It merely creates a public record that, say, "Joe Smith" is "dba" (doing business as) "Joe's Plumbing" or "Frantabulous Widdershins, Jr." I gather many states do this on the county level, but here in Massachusetts, it's handled by municipalities (and BOY did this confuse the computer at my new out-of-state bank), where it's called a "Business Certificate". You go to your city hall, fill out a form (which, note, makes your new business name, its connection to your old business name, and your home address all a public record together), and pay them some money (I paid I think $60 for a four year certificate) and, boom, you're good to go.

Why do this? So that you can, say, walk into a bank and open a bank account with that name, so that people who want to pay you by writing checks can write them to the name you prefer and you can still deposit them - something all the banks I talked to would not do without seeing the official embossed Business Certificate. I don't know to what extent payment processors like PayPal care about matching names on bank accounts and credit cards when they're being linked to the account, but that may also be an issue.

I found out that there are relatively recent Federal laws for renting mail boxes at mail box services (PO Boxes, only from commercial services) that require them to have your "real name" - again, my Business Certificate made it acceptable (and maybe legal?) for me to have my business name on my box (and receive mail for my business!) instead of just my personal legal name, but it also requires my legal name.

There are a whole bunch of places in life where we do business with our names, and it might be sticky or awkward for you to be functioning under a name not on your ID. Going out drinking with colleagues and getting carded. Getting your ID checked for a flight to a conference (being paged by the airline to come to the white courtesy phone). Reserving a hotel room at a conference, which has to be secured with a credit card. Splitting the cost of a pizza with Venmo.

On top of all that, there have been some huge controversies about social media giants – Facebook, Google – having "real name" policies which lead to users, including some quite famous ones, getting locked out of their accounts for using pen names, stage names, etc. instead of their "real" names. Facebook kicked out Salman Rushdie, of all people – one of the most famous novelists in the world – because his legal first name is "Ahmed". Basically, using any sort of pseudonym opens you up to the possibility of this kind of bureaucratic harassment. It helps to have some legal paperwork – but it might not be enough.

I would caution you that using a pseudonym – even a very open one (the connection between nym and legal name is not at all a secret) – is generally, slowly becoming more and more difficult in the US and treated more and more prejudicially. Fully-fledged legal name changes don't have that problem. But increasingly, systems – business, legal, social, technological – treat people who try to function under more than one name as suspicious and possibly criminal.

Some of that is ignorance, and hostility to the notion of people being "two-faced". But I also have been entertaining the hypothesis that having multiple names is a kind of class marker. The populations which have multiple personal names tend to be those with reputational management issues - which you, as an aspiring academic, can appreciate. Those issues can be lumped into two rough piles. For one, there are people managing stigmatized identities, such as immigrants who Anglicize their names when in the workplace, but continue to be known as their original, traditional names among friends and families. For another, there are people whose identities are "brands", such as in your case. Most of the individuals whose identities are brands they need to manage for the sake of their career success? Are usually in some line of work which is either intellectual or artistic or both.

There are plenty of people in the US who are hostile to immigrants and intellectuals, and I think some of them take finding someone has two names as indicative they are likely one of them – and that's not even erroneous – those outsiders and "elites" who do weird things like have two names.

Wherever it comes from, public policy and private attitudes in the US are slowly swinging towards insisting that people have one, official name, and use it for everything. Expect more obstacles to crop up, over time, if you try to function under a pseudonym that doesn't have some legal underpinning, and maybe even if it does.

This may not be a problem if you're comfortable treating your professional name as a kind of nickname, and always fall back on what's in your wallet. But it will be a thing that comes up. Possibly more than you imagine. Possibly more than I imagine.

6

One option you may have is changing your name legally. This would avoid some of the complications you see. This is the time to do it, before you graduate and have a diploma under the current name.

As far as I know, the only reason to avoid using another name legally is that you can, in some circumstances be accused of fraud, but those circumstances are not the ones here since you don't have a fraudulent purpose.

I have something of a similar problem. I don't carry my birth name, for complicated reasons, but wish that I did. But once I graduated college it always seemed too late to change.

However, if you simply use a pseudonym, it will be learned sooner or later. That might complicate things or not, so think about that. If people start referring to you under both names interchangeably, others will be confused. You will eventually want a passport if you don't already have one. For this you need to use your legal name, and so, when you travel to international conferences, it will normally be under that name (a minor obstacle, of course).

And maybe some other famous athlete or academic will come along with your newly chosen name in any case. I share names with both famous athletes and academics, by the way. It has never been an issue, but in my case the fields of study are different. I've only ever gotten one email that should have gone to the other academic. A bit humorous, that.

Finally, your difficulty in starting out a career will be determined by far more fundamental things, I predict. As such, there is probably little downside in just leaving it as it is, using your current name.

  • I'd like to avoid changing my legal name - that seems like quite a hassle, and I'm not sure if it's necessary. I suppose it would always be possible to do this later in life? I'm alright with others knowing about it - I plan to be quite transparent about it, e.g. including a small note on my CV / personal website. – Jordan Feb 18 at 21:21
  • Yes, it requires the OK from a judge in many places, though I don't think that a lawyer is needed (but I'm not a lawyer). But it is best to keep a single persona for professional reasons. – Buffy Feb 18 at 21:23
4

These kinds of variants are very common with first and middle names, but I've never seen it with a last name. For example someone with legal name Charles Lutwidge Dodgeson might easily publish under:

  • Charles Dodgeson
  • Charles L. Dodgeson
  • Charles Lutwidge Dodgeson
  • C. Lutwidge Dodgeson
  • C. L. Dodgeson (I don't know anyone who does this, but it would probably be fine)
  • Chase Dodgeson (in the case where the person goes by Chase)
  • Lutwidge Dodgeson (in the case where the person goes by their middle name)
  • Chase L. Dodgeson
  • C. Larry Dodgeson
  • ...

Maybe such a variant works for you. But normally, changes from First Middle Last are toward how one introduces oneself in conversation, not away.

As others have said, regardless of how you publish, IT systems and degrees will always contain your legal name. Having these be different is normal and fine as in the "Chase Dodgeson" example. The main sources of friction I see would be

  1. When applying for jobs, it can confuse people or possibly someone will disbelieve these are your publications (although if they are listed on your website which contains both your legal name and pseudonym, hopefully it's okay).

  2. People may be confused when meeting you in person or hearing about you third-hand, then they go to look for your publications. Every such interaction now needs some additional explanation, or maybe just a good explanatory sentence prominently on your website.

If you keep your last name unchanged, both of these are much easier or not existent at all. I think the difficulties are surmountable, but I'd definitely consider all your other options first. One is to legally change your middle name and use a variant with the middle initial or the full middle name.

  • T. S. Kelso from Celestrak commonly uses the option you claimed to know no examples. – Mefitico Feb 18 at 19:40
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    Not to mention J.R.R. Tolkien... Though I don't know if he used that abbreviation in his academic writings. – V2Blast Feb 18 at 20:33
  • In all academic settings, I would introduce myself and be known by my pseudonym. I think that should prevent the issues you outline in (2). I'd probably also include a small note on my website explaining the situation. – Jordan Feb 18 at 21:23
4

As mentioned in other answers, yes, this is a worthwhile idea1 for SEO purposes, since you correctly note that, at least in some domains, online identities are increasingly important. Not being able to easily find a researcher by googling their name might not be important but from my experience searchability is at least a minor convenience, and can occasionally be important.

I would simply like to add some weight by noting that this is actually done extremely commonly, in at least three situations:

  • People (especially women) who get married in Western societies often continue publishing under their birth name.
  • Due to Eurocentrism, most researchers whose name is in a non-Western script (such as Cyrillic or CJKV) transliterate their names (for which there are no fixed spelling rules, and thus different outcomes) or even take on Western nicknames (“Jackie Chan”, aka. 陳港生).
  • People from cultures with double surnames (e.g. Spanish, Portuguese) tend to hyphenate their last names for publication purposes, such that Inês Gomes Figueira might publish under the name Inês Gomes-Figueira. This might not seem like a big change but it is in fact a completely different name, and at least as big a change as using an alternative spelling for your last name.

1 With the caveat that you can’t easily change past records, and may not be legally allowed to change your name on certificates (but this isn’t a problem!).

3

Devil's advocate here.

I personally consider it a worthwhile idea, especially if you could add your middle name somewhere (as opposed to using a different last name). It would be a minor change in publications (just adding one letter), and it would still be easy to see how it refers to you.

However, this could be an issue for any publications you published before, and as you mentioned, degrees and enrollment, that you probably cannot change easily without legal proof (depending on your country).

Look at chinese researchers though, a lot of them have identical first name and last name, and they still end up publishing with these names. I see several reasons not to change the name: first, because they are identified usually by the academy they work in, which pretty much always goes with the author's name on a paper. Second, when you apply somewhere, or contact someone, if they are interested to look into you, they can make the effort to add one extra word and find you, for example by specifying your field of expertise, or again, your academy. For other people who happened to search for you on their own, the same answer is pretty much the same. If they look for you, they can make that extra effort (and if they work/look a lot into your field, their google history may be biased and will most likely already gets your result ahead).

  • The enrolment shouldn't be an issue - happy to do that under my legal name, but having degrees printed under a different name (to what I'm known as in academia) could be slightly annoying. I would be transparent about it, however – Jordan Feb 18 at 21:18
  • @Jordan for the degrees, that's generally not an issue in practice (and it happens in practice frequently enough, e.g. all the researchers who change their last names at marriage, and that can happen before or after gaining degrees). No one will look at your degree transcripts except the legal people at your new employer, and an explainable difference between your legal name (on your contract and on your degree transcripts) and your publishing name isn't a problem. – Peteris Feb 19 at 16:38
0

Having a fairly common name and surname, I faced a similar difficulty when starting my academic career and adopted from the start my wife's family name as middle name. And then as middle initial, which I use up to now. This does not prevent every confusion, as on Google scholar list of papers, and I had my salary once wired to an homonym for six months, but I do remain identifiable with this simple addition without getting into changing names.

0

So it seems like you are really just trying to distinguish yourself from other with the same name. The most likely approach at least to me would be to publish as yourself, but with a unique identifier i.e. a nickname.

John R. (JR) Smith

While I can't remember specifics on where I've seen this, I have seen it multiple times, and as it doesn't change your name.

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