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It is often considered a very bad idea to try to name a discovery (a law, phenomenon or an invention) after yourself.

On the other hand, there are many species names which seem to be a bastardized Latin of the discoverer's name. With gene names, I'm not sure, but I've seen many frivolous gene names, such as those inspired by cartoon characters. I wonder if you could get away with naming a gene after yourself if you wanted to.

In other cases, such as names of synthetic strains and plasmids, it is in fact preferable to use the researcher's name. Off the top of my head, I recall GFAJ-1 - the surrounding controversy aside, given all the work she's done, what is so wrong about her wanting to name it after herself?

However, why is this so? Apparently, it can even advance to an extreme where many years after a discovery has become established and associated with Dr. Jones, when he writes a review article on applications of the Jones Effect he will still carefully avoid acknowledging this name.

Isn't it convenient to simply name something after yourself when no clever acronym exists? Isn't doing the work of the discovery enough to earn the right to name a thing? Doesn't the fact that the discovery is important enough to be published automatically imply that it's important enough to be named after oneself?

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    Why you would think the "Superbest" phenomenon would be a good name for something? Jokes aside, naming things after yourself is best reserved for cranks and not scientists. – Alexandros Dec 19 '14 at 16:02
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    @Alexandros Like I said, ever so often one makes a legitimate discovery which is difficult to name in a descriptive fashion. In such cases, especially when comparing a new, tentative discovery to others, it seems like naming it after yourself is the best (pun intended) option. – Superbest Dec 19 '14 at 16:18
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    Does everything need an explicit name? – Austin Henley Dec 19 '14 at 16:21
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    My impression is that many such names are given to the discovery after the fact. The first paper to cite the initial discovery might call it the "Jones effect" for the sake of brevity, and so the name sticks. – Moriarty Dec 19 '14 at 16:35
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    @Doc: It would be cool if Newton had published the first one as "Newton's law of motion", with great fanfare and trumpeting, received his knighthood, and then came back "oh, hang on a minute, we're going to need another one". Then five years later, "look, you're not going to believe this..." – Steve Jessop Dec 20 '14 at 13:48
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In general, the name of a thing should indicate an aspect of it which is very important to the person assigning the name. A person who creates something and names it after themselves implies that they think the most important thing about it is that they created it. That would in turn suggest to anyone who isn't interested in the person who created it would likely not be interested in the thing thus named.

Thus, naming something after oneself is not necessarily a sign of ego, but rather the opposite. If Alex Johnson (made-up name) publishes a paper entitled "Alex Johnson's Laws of Quarkions", the title would suggest that the paper was primarily relevant in relation to Alex Johnson's other work and would have little relevance outside that. If instead the paper had been simply published "Laws of Quarkions", that would have a stronger implication that the author believed laws described therein to be universal, and thus relevant everywhere.

It is only after the importance of something becomes self-evident that the attaching of the creator's name to it really serves to elevate the status of the creator. Until such time, the attachment of the creator's name will tend to deprecate the importance of the thing thus named.

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    "the most important thing about it is that he created it" - I think this was exactly the answer I was looking for. I'll accept since I can't argue with this logic. – Superbest Dec 20 '14 at 0:50
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Traditionally naming after scientists has been considered an honour bestowed upon somebody by their colleagues. This is why there are plenty of such names in latin animal or plant names. one very good example is Strigiphilus garylarsoni, a chewing louse, named after Gary Larson, author of the Far Side.

Naming can also be subject to strict laws. In some countries, it is, for example, not possible to name official places after persons until after they have passed away. This is to prevent people to inflate their own reputation while alive (it is quite easy to see where such behaviour is going overboard). But, this is a digression.

The main point is that etiquette indicates that one does not name things after one-self, one can hope that the work is so appreciated by others that a naming occurs. It is probably also a good thing that everything we discover is not named after a person. I drove my Smith at 120 kiloJones per Dickens.

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    Wouldn't you you want a guacamole of Hydrogen molecules, though? – Compass Dec 19 '14 at 16:55
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    Interesting! But Gary Larson was far from a lousy cartoonist ;). More trivia: the lemur species Avahi cleesei is named after John Cleese (which he regards as a higher honor than the knighthood he declined). – Moriarty Dec 19 '14 at 19:00
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    Please, kilojones per dickens. The unit name is with a lower case letter. ;-) (Also, careful you don't get a ticket.) – David Richerby Dec 20 '14 at 0:46
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    What's the difference between a kilojansson-richerby and kilovolt-ampere (kVA)? Actually, I guess I do prefer more romantic names, rolls off the tongue better...damn you Watt, Joule, and Tesla! – Nick T Dec 20 '14 at 20:46
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    @NickT Note also that he didn't drive his Smith, but he could have driven his Ford. – Superbest Dec 24 '14 at 6:37
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One reason is that academia tends to frown on self promotion of all sorts (not just naming things after yourself). This is certainly not a universal rule, and some areas are more tolerant of self promotion than others, but it's a good first approximation.

Another reason is avoiding conflicts of interest. A meaningful, descriptive name is better than naming something after its discoverer (imagine if black holes were called something like "Smith objects"). Furthermore, several people are often involved in any given discovery, either as coauthors or as authors of related papers, and it can be tricky to decide who really deserves the most credit. If you let people name things after themselves, they will naturally have a bias to choose that name instead of a more meaningful or appropriate name. Ruling this out of course doesn't eliminate all bias, but it's a start.

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  • I don't think the terminological clarity argument holds up very well: we may have back holes, but we also have Wolf-Rayet stars and the Chandrasekhar limit. – jakebeal Dec 19 '14 at 17:02
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    @jakebeal: We do have plenty of things named after people, but I believe that naming pattern is worse for the community (it's a small but real increase in barriers to understanding and memory). This is best reserved for cases in which it's difficult to think of a really good descriptive name or when the community wants to honor an outstanding contribution (and is willing to sacrifice clarity to do so). Either way, it's a conflict of interest for someone to make this decision regarding their own name. – Anonymous Mathematician Dec 19 '14 at 18:58
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My sense of this is that a name on a scientific artifact is seen as a form of immortality. Newton's Laws will remain Newton's Laws for untold centuries to come, and Isaac Newton will be remembered as an important figure of science for discovering them, just as Carl Friedrich Gauss will be remembered, and Leonhard Euler, and Edsger Dijkstra, and Marie Curie, and so on. Even when the students who use their names don't know their biography, they honor their memory.

If you name something after yourself, you are saying that your accomplishment is as significant and deserving of going down in history as the ones that I have named above. Most scientific work, however, doesn't turn out that way. Even the work that does is mostly identified only by how it stands the test of time. So if you name something after yourself, you are effectively saying that you are so smart that you can see into the future and tell that history will judge your work as super-important.

What a massively egotistical assumption!

Note: Some things, like synthetic plasmids, are exempt from this principle because they are not so much immortalizations as card catalog indices. You are not likely, for example, to find "Janet Wang's plasmid," but rather "pJanetWang-73j-v2" meaning something like Janet Wang's 73rd plasmid, type j, version 2.

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  • "If you name something after yourself, you are saying that your accomplishment is as significant and deserving of going down in history as the ones that I have named above." - But when you submit a paper, you are not suggesting the same for your work? Even greater discoveries have been published, that were not named for their discoverers. Besides, the egotism you describe seems to be self-punishing: If the thing I name is not truly worth naming, no one will bother repeating that name anyhow. – Superbest Dec 19 '14 at 18:48
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    @Superbest When you submit a paper, you are not suggesting the same for your work? Of course not: putting your name on a paper is just signing your work. – jakebeal Dec 19 '14 at 19:33
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The one word answer is: culture. The culture of academia — and indeed many other areas of life — has a variety of rules placed on self-promotion and naming. These are, in many way, arbitrary, capricious, and often illogical or unreasonable, but that's just how culture is. It serves various functions, some good and some bad.

The general rule is: complimenting someone is an honor, while complimenting yourself is usually frowned upon. The cultural mores are that you should be concerned with other people's opinion of you and work hard to win their high regards, but you should be humble and uncertain of your own personal values.

This is partly due to a myriad of psychological mechanisms, like the fundamental negative bias (people are naturally better at spotting and remembering negative things), attribution bias, illusory superiority (everyone thinks they are above average), tactics to combat free-loaders/loafers/cons, and vested/conflicted interest.

In short: we are highly skeptical of people who are trying to tell us how great they are. Also, naming things is hard, at the same time as having something named after you is considered an extremely high honor — a truly grand compliment.

If I said, "Man, that Brian guy is really an amazingly great person" or if I discovered a previously unknown kind of rock and named them "Brian rocks", there are many people who would immediately have the urge to punch me in the face.

It is further generally recommended that you avoid doing things that make people instinctively want to punch you in the face. And so it goes in academia. You are free to ignore it and name a tower after yourself or try to place your own name on a discovery, but you should just be warned that some people might not react well to this.

Ultimately, it's just a weird social truth: it's always better to have people compliment you than to have to do it yourself. That's not to say you can't toot your own horn (especially when no one else seems to want to), but it's way better to get yourself a shill.

Man, that Superbest guy asks great questions...

Note: Not all cultures are this way. Indeed, in business it is generally accepted that you can name the business or product after yourself all you want, and self-promotion is often actively encouraged with far less limitations. This is, one might imagine, an area where business and academia don't always see eye to eye.

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  • Oddly enough, I've hardly ever wanted to "punch someone in the face" simply because they named discoveries after themselves. It always seemed like a natural thing, and part of the motivation. – Superbest Dec 20 '14 at 0:49
  • @Superbest Me either, which I think is why it seems so weird at times - I mean, I really don't mind, so why should someone else? Unfortunately that's not how things work - some people mind about all kinds of stuff. While I generally love "those who matter don't mind, and those who mind don't matter" I'm not sure how well this applies in academia. I don't know of any horror stories though, so I perhaps wonder just how bad this is - is it just frowned upon by some, or is it a poison pill? That I don't feel qualified to answer, as I haven't witnessed it either way. – BrianH Dec 20 '14 at 2:31

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