Sometimes I want to cite a PhD thesis of someone who has a name in three parts. The latest example I came across was "Richard Shope Davis". Shope sounds like a last name, but is there a way to know for sure? His name does not appear on Google and this kind of ambiguity seems to happen all the time for me (my work involves looking at a large number of PhD theses).

This is even harder with non-English names, for me at least. In those cases, it is often impossible to even guess whether the name in the middle is the second of two first names or the first of two last names. How does one do this?

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    A middle name is a thing also.
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 18, 2022 at 21:07
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    Are you asking about English names or generally? Nov 18, 2022 at 21:12
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    @Azor Ahai -him- I am asking generally
    – Pertinax
    Nov 18, 2022 at 21:13
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    To clarify, are you wondering whether you should cite this person as "Davis, RS" or as "Shope Davis, R" without having other examples of this person being cited (or even citing themselves)?
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 18, 2022 at 21:28
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    For what it's worth, I searched the name you mentioned using Google and immediately found a thesis in Proquest with DAVIS clearly marked as the last name, so in this particular case, if we're looking at the same thesis, the way forward seems obvious.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 18, 2022 at 21:36

2 Answers 2


Every library is going to have indexed citation information for documents in their possession. Unless you have some rare document that's never been indexed anywhere, they'll have labeled meta data to go with the document.

Many theses are in ProQuest even if they aren't published anywhere else, and you'll find the name used in the way you should reference it. For example,

DAVIS, Richard Shope, 1944-


Columbia University, Ph.D., 1974


clearly identifies "DAVIS" as the last name.

Ask a librarian at your institution for help if you can't find a document anywhere else.

There is no way to just "tell" from a name; you need to find how it's used to refer to the specific document you're looking at. Two people can have exactly the same set of names and partition them differently. It's somewhat common for kids to be named with a combination of their parents' names, such as taking one of their surnames (or former surnames) as a middle name, or keeping both names as a combined surname. Often in the latter case people will identify this with a hyphen, but not necessarily.

  • Exactly what I needed, many thanks.
    – Pertinax
    Nov 18, 2022 at 22:07
  • How did you find the thesis on Proquest by the way? I downloaded a large number of theses from Proquest, and I'm having trouble finding them back with just the title and the author either through google or through Proquest's search engine. EDIT: I think you might have done it with Google Scholar, I can find back the theses easily with that
    – Pertinax
    Nov 18, 2022 at 22:21
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    @Pertinax Yeah, I used Google Scholar. Also tested using proquest.com/advanced putting in the full name without any additional markup and selecting the "AUTHOR" field; for this particular author that only returned 2 results so it was pretty easy to find. I can imagine in some cases that would not be sufficient, but I'd think if you have a title and author together that should be enough.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 18, 2022 at 22:33

Generally, style issues are going to be controversial. Different places, different offices, different schools, different editors at journals, will have different policies. You should try to find out what the place you want to publish will prefer. Look for a style guide. Check how other authors have done things and gotten published.

Generally though, a good rule to default to, is to try to cite any article with as close to the original as you can reasonably achieve. If the original has a name in a particular form, order, format, etc., try to follow that as closely as you can. The same is true for things such as the title, sub-title, even down to what appears to be spelling or grammar errors in the cited title.

The reason to do this is because you want to make it as clear as possible what you are citing. Any change from the original will be a potential source of confusion.

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