I've recently embarked on my PhD studies (cancer, structural biology) and have yet to publish. Currently, there are some 200 papers in my name and several thousand under my surname. Because of this, I am considering switching my surname to an old, rare, surname in my family, which is only used by one active researcher.

My question is this: are there any reasonable alternatives that does not include legally changing my name? I personally don't mind changing it, but the old surname happens to be "noble", and may come off as quite pretentious. I would be able to change to another, less pretentious, surname, but in terms of rareness, no alternative comes close.

In short, what are my alternatives?

  • 25
    Captain John X. Smith it is.
    – Eric
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 9:16
  • 10
    I'm dying to know what the "old" surname is that's so pretentious. "Royal?"
    – Aaron Hall
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 12:49
  • 6
    I don't mean to be a downer, but the vast majority of PhD students in many fields (very much including biology) end up leaving academia, either after the PhD (hopefully) or after many years as a postdoc/junior faculty (more tragically). Be wary of doing drastic things that only pay off if staying in the field.
    – user4512
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 13:56
  • 8
    Sorry - have to make this joke. You don't like your name so you choose an Otter one, eh? Don't worry - no English speaker will find it pretentious.
    – Floris
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 18:35
  • 6
    @Eric: depending on the implications in the country of origin of the name, and whether you care about them, you could just drop the "von" and be Eric Otter. A surname that's an English word is always occasionally going to provoke someone's imagination, and the otter is not the most revered among animals, but it's not ridiculous. You might not want to be "Eric Dungbeetle", but the worst you'll get over "Eric Otter", unless someone wants to be spiteful, is, "why did you choose Otter if it's not your real name? Oh, it's a family name, fair enough". Commented May 13, 2015 at 22:04

8 Answers 8


I also have a very common name (usually quoted along the lines of "Smith, J.") and despite the fact that I have worked and published with two different institutions there has never been a problem assigning all my papers to me personally (ORCID and other system let you take your institution(s) into account). As long as there isn't a person with the same first and last name in your institution (and even then, it usually a couple of clicks to rectify the situation and I am speaking of someone who had to contend with a Joan/John Smith situation).

My university makes all researchers from post doc onwards keep a list of their publications on their official university homepage, so even google will associate my publications correctly. So if you come across a paper from my old affiliation you can get my current contact data from this.

And honestly most subfields are specialised enough that people roughly know that John Smith at institution A is working on a certain topic (because that's what your group does) and John Smith at institution B will probably not have published a particular paper. If people want to talk to your about your results, they will find you, even with a common name.


In terms of publishing papers, I'm not aware of any requirement to use your legal name. A common example would be those who continue to use their maiden name (where people change their name on marriage). A friend of mine did the reverse, and wrote her first paper under the name she would assume when she married shortly afterwards.

The trickier case is what will appear on your PhD. It may not matter much, but it would probably make life easier if that said the same as your papers. You'd have to talk to your university about their rules.

  • 1
    It's certainly an option. However, I've heard about potential problems when it comes to registering for events, and, as you point out, diplomas. The big question for me is whether or not I would then be registered under a "fake" (for lack of a better term) name on faculty websites etc.? I'm not sure what the rules are for a given institution. If not, there would be a cut-off between my faculty name and the name under which I publish, which probably won't be helpful.
    – Eric
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 7:34
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    Just for the record, at least in France the legal name does not change after marriage. Married people have the right to use the name of their spouse or a juxtaposition of the two names, but their "maiden" name officially stays their legal name. Many things happen that seem to indicate otherwise, but this is what French law says. Commented May 13, 2015 at 15:03
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    @Eric I don't think the registration for events is the biggest problems: conference organisers can be accommodating if you explain (possibly in advance by e-mail). The biggest problem would probably be border control if you have to travel and explain to the officer at the border that the the reason for visiting is that you're giving a talk at a conference, even though the name on your passport doesn't match any of the names in the programme, nor do any of the names on any articles or posters you've come with.
    – Bruno
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 17:12
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    Adding/changing an pseudonymic middle name might be a decent middle ground (ha!). E.g., you could be Eric X.A. Smith on papers and Eric X. Smith on your passport, which might close enough to satisfy bureaucrats.
    – Reid
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 16:05
  • @BenoîtKloeckner what a fascinating thing, that's exactly the sort of information that I like finding out.
    – Joe
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 12:50

The previous answers point out two things:

  • add/modify a middle name
  • use a pseudonym

I can agree to the first one, but the second seems more trouble than it is worth, as you yourself state. Further, I find modifying your name a bit of an extreme measure, i.e. "legally" changing your name, solely for the purpose of academic recognition.

I'd advise you to shift your view to other means of identification. All papers that I came across have some information regarding the institution of the authors and their emails. This info is also mostly freely available, even revenues that charge you for the paper usually allow free access to the abstract and author information. So, I don't really see a problem that someone wouldn't be able to contact you or find your website or your profile at your institution. Even with a large amount of redundancy, e.g. someone with the same name at the same institution, your email is still unique.

Consider also that a great amount of publications require a bio of the authors, mostly including a picture.

You mention citations, they are kept intentionally very concise, because they primarily point to the reference in the literature section of the paper. There is the full reference to be found and by following the above approach, everyone interested will be able to identify you.

The point being, aside from taking very drastic measures, you will not be able to guarantee that your name is/stays unique.

I suggest you stay with your present identity, the one which identified you throughout your life and which family, friends, and colleagues use to identify you and let the scientific community get acquainted with you as you are. I'm sure in time you'll see that it isn't such a big deal and your earned scientific renown won't suffer.

  • 2
    Many thanks for such a comprehensive answer. It's very possible that I am overestimating the benefit of changing my name and that I should, in fact, just abandon the idea. That being said, allow me to play the role of devil's advocate: In my field, I would likely need a minimum of two post-doc positions before starting my own group. This would mean that I'd be associated with several institutions and (most likely) go through several email-addresses. Reducing other means of identification. Also, the "bio" in my field only consists of one's institution. I've never come across a picture.
    – Eric
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 8:14
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    I'll paste a relevant, earlier, comment to give you some further insight as to my thought process: [...]However, I'm more worried about name recognition. In my lab, at least, we nearly exclusively refer to new publications as the latest "Smith paper", and also refer to other people's work by the surname of said person or the surname of the principal investigator in that group. To a lesser extent I'm also worried about citations (i.e., they won't cite my papers as "J. X. Smith", but often just "Smith 2003". Am I over-analyzing?
    – Eric
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 8:23
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    I use my gmail account precisely for that reason, until i get tenure. I had no trouble with that approach. Further, you infer the colloquial speech inside a field or lab. In that setting, all participants usually exactly know which "Smith paper" is referred to, who is this Smith, what is this "new paper", where is it published, etc. So, you run the risk of your papers being referred to as "the-guy-with-the-unique-name paper" (I'm joking of course :) ), you get the idea, but that doesn't change the acknowledgement of the community nor does it suggest its ignorance. Commented May 13, 2015 at 9:09
  • All good points. Thanks, I'll give it some more thought.
    – Eric
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 9:15
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    Consider also that a great amount of publications require a bio of the authors, mostly including a picture — In some fields. Author biographies are almost completely unheard of in others.
    – JeffE
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 15:46

I would suggest that you take into account where your name would come in papers ordered alphabetically in your field.

At least one of the authors of this paper on the subject considered legally changing her name because it has such a notable effect on career outcomes in their field due to conventions about how names are ordered on scientific papers.


  • 14
    In 100 years, everybody in those fields will be named Aaron A. Aaronson …
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 12:32
  • @Wrzlprmft Everyone willing to change their name for the sake of career at least. The data implies it works and if the social cost is low or you're planning to do it anyway it's rational to take into account the career effects of your choice.
    – Murphy
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 13:51
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    And, this effect is not nearly limited to Author lists of published papers. There's a reason companies have names like "AAAA Exterminators" and "Aardvark Towing". Commented May 13, 2015 at 14:43
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    @Wrzlprmft ...except in fields where the last author also carries prestige and signals seniority. ("Congratulations, Prof. Aaaaaaabarnathy, on your recent promotion to associate professor with indefinite tenure. In anticipation of your request, we have taken the liberty of legally changing your name to Zzzzzzzzymmerman.")
    – JeffE
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 15:43
  • 1
    Of course. The only thing I remember about the ATLAS papers about Higgs and similar is that they are Aad et al. :) Commented May 13, 2015 at 16:39

Add a name instead of changing it

Using a different name than your legal name can bring all kind of difficulties, however, people often use a subset of their full legal name. While changing names legally can be a hassle, adding an extra first or middle name is much easier.

Assuming that your current name is, say, Eric J. Smith with a middlename already, amending your legal name to e.g. Eric Aardvark J. Smith would allow you to his would allow you to still use the sub-name Eric J. Smith in most normal situations, while having Eric Aardvark Smith (or Aardvark Smith for alphabetic ordering reasons) on your publications and academic business cards. This has the advantage in case of any misunderstandings with 'non-matching names' an ID with the full name clearly resolves them.

  • 3
    "While changing names legally can be a hassle, adding an extra first or middle name is much easier." Which country?
    – JiK
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 13:01
  • Using a different name than your legal name can bring all kind of difficulties — It can? Like what?
    – JeffE
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 15:39
  • 3
    I publish under a name that is not on my legal documentation (it's close but still different) and it has never caused me a problem.
    – mako
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 16:02
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    @JeffE for example, getting reimbursement from bureaucratic institutions if paperwork shows "a different person" for the publication or conference, this is solvable but has caused an occasional headache for colleagues publishing under their maiden names.
    – Peteris
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 16:18
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    @JeffE Border control too, that could prevent you from getting to the conference.
    – Bruno
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 17:18

Have you looked into using something like ORCID? It will not prevent people from talking about the "Smith paper", but at least it makes things easier to identify as yours, after the fact.

Also, nothing wrong with going with a "von so-and-so", but it seems like more trouble than it is worth....


If you are going to change your name (and I'm not convinced that you need to) why not change or add a middle name? There may be many John Smiths in cancer biology, but I imagine there are few John X. Smiths. Even the relatively poor disambiguation technologies in use at various bibliometric databases can handle middle initials with relative ease.

  • This is definitely one option. It would solve part of the problem, i.e. people willing to type my whole name in pubmed would find only my publications. However, I'm more worried about name recognition. In my lab, at least, we nearly exclusively refer to new publications as the latest "Smith paper", and also refer to other people's work by the surname of said person or the surname of the principal investigator in that group. To a lesser extent I'm also worried about citations (i.e., they won't cite my papers as "J. X. Smith", but often just "Smith 2003". Am I over-analyzing?
    – Eric
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 7:24
  • In other words, seeing as how there are several prominent researchers publishing under my surname, any reference to a "Smith paper" would probably be lost. Granted, this is all secondary to my research and its quality, and very much so. Still, it may have an effect.
    – Eric
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 7:26
  • In my field at least, only one name is written out in full. Although I use my middle initial on papers, this doesn't always make it into citations. A more reliable variant would be to expand a middle name rather than the first, which some people do. This might confuse people a bit if that is not what you are usually called, but there are people who are known (widely) by a nickname, so it might still work out.
    – Jessica B
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 7:32

I have the same problem like yours since my mother tongue consists only of one-syllable words, each of them are extremely common.

Adding a hyphen between middle name and first name works for me. While it make significantly different in Google search results, nobody will care a hyphen. My university even allows me to use my name with the hyphen in my thesis so that it is consistent with my other papers.

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