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Asking on behalf of a friend's relative to maximize anonymity. (Most details are left out to protect the identity of this person, and I was also not given much detail to begin with.)

Dr. X is an early career scientist who had to flee his home country due to credible threat for his family. His situation is not unlike those in a witness protection program --- he and his family fled the country, settled in the US, and got new names. And they do not want to be found.

Dr. X got a new research job at University A in the US. But during the hiring process he had to reveal his old identity so that the university could verify his degree and publication records. And he was still hired as Dr. X, his old name (for a variety of additional VISA-related reasons). The university is kind enough not to list him on any publicly accessible website, and within the department, he has a nickname. So there is no problem on this end.

However, Dr. X still wants to continue publishing papers, and be active in his research community. What's the best way to publish under a different name?

Some current suggestions have their weakness:

  1. Publish as Y, Ph.D., University A --- This will likely cause problem as anyone looking into this will not find a Dr. Y in University A.

  2. Publish as Y, Ph.D., independent researcher --- Dr. Y's Ph.D. cannot be verified. Not acknowledging his affiliation is a tough request for a new-hire, and may cause problems with acknowledging grant funding.

  3. Publish as Mr. Y, independent researcher --- He may not be taken seriously (by those who do not actually read his papers). And this also has the problem of not acknowledging his affiliation.

  4. Officially change his name to Dr. Y --- This is not easy while he is still in the immigration pipeline, which can take years.

  5. Publish as Dr. X from his old university --- This will produce too much searchable mentioning of Dr. X, and it's hard to prevent something leading to his whereabouts from being accidentally leaked. The recommendation (from those who know about this kind of thing) is apparently that Dr. X should appear to be dead on the internet.

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    This story does not sound credible to me. Are you actually asking for a real person or for a fictional story?
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 18 at 23:09
  • @BryanKrause I admit that I haven't verified this story, and I have no plan to (if true, I'm scared to know too much). This story came from a group I donate money to, so certainly it could all be a scam. But I found this to be credible and have no strong reason to doubt. The researcher in question was able to get fake IDs that are somewhat useful within his home country, which allowed him to escape. But fake IDs are no longer useful at US border. He had to enter US using his only valid passport, which must match his visa, which must match his employment record. They are all tied together.
    – Bilbo
    Aug 19 at 19:14
  • Some clarifications have been edited into the post; the rest of the discussion about credibility has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Aug 19 at 20:15
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    Being employed at a university where other people from his home country might be present (as students, faculty, visiting scientists, etc.) puts this person at a very high risk of being identified and outed. Publishing under an assumed name may be the least of his problems. Aug 19 at 21:28

2 Answers 2

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I hate to suggest it but there is probably no real solution that guarantees safety. If I understand it correctly, people in (formal) witness protection are strongly advised to break all ties with their former life and, especially, with contacts, any of whom could compromise them unwittingly. And a single mistake could prove fatal.

This is most critical when the potential enemies have power and agency, such as the mob or, I suspect, any foreign government.

Generally, people need to build a completely new identity, unrelated to their former life. That is hard to do and still maintain an academic presence unless an official agency (FBI, say) can construct a new academic identity that won't be questioned. But that requires governmental assistance and minimization of those who know the truth.

That said, with some risk, an academic could continue to collaborate with a (very) few colleagues who publish under their own names without reference to the person at risk. While technically plagiarism, it could be ameliorated by having cached documents revealing the truth until the period of risk ends, perhaps with the death of the person in question (and maybe relatives in extreme cases).

But a combination of government assistance and a (very) few trusted colleagues could find a way to publish under an alias that is updated when the risk ends, which makes the plagiarism problem go away.

In official records, if I understand correctly, people can be disappeared (legally dead) and artificial persons created with complete legal personas. But whether this is sufficiently important to those governmental agencies may be unlikely.

But doing this unofficially is probably impossible, especially if the opposition party has resources and the will to act. The world is too connected now and the opportunities for an inadvertent reveal too frequent and likely.

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    Also, keeping with the same specialized research topics and/or peculiarities in language (word choice, grammar, ...) may add to the risk of being identified by their work. Aug 18 at 16:16
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    Academia is a very small world, there will always be someone who says: Hmm, Dr. Y, you remind me of Dr. X. Aug 19 at 16:28
  • @DeboraWeber-Wulff, I write a lot here and I have a certain style (sometimes awkward, I know). I'm pretty sure that if someone wanted my IRL identity they could do a textual comparison and make an accurate guess since I also write elsewhere under a true-name. An AI could do it pretty easily.
    – Buffy
    Aug 19 at 16:31
  • @Buffy, actually, an "AI" would be pretty bad at predicting your identity. But there are non-AI algorithms that calculate stylistics. I was surprised when I compared three of my publications in widely different publications with (I thought) different styles. The stylistics predicted the three papers I wrote as being from the same author, and the three "confusion" papers as being from others. What I meant was, that A knows B knows C and in my field (computer science) there is a lot of gossip. If A figures out X is Y, B and C will know it, too, shortly. Aug 20 at 18:17
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Assuming "Do not publish" is not an acceptable way to continue publishing:

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  • Between women who married or divorced post-PhD and people with e.g. Chinese names who adopt a Western-style name for working in the West, I would assume there are a vast number of academics publishing under a name that doesn't match the one on their diploma. Aug 19 at 4:34
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    +1 for the cat content! Aug 19 at 6:56

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