The BMJ recently had to apologise for having published a picture of a Japanese doctor called Dr Yoshitaka Fujii which turned out not to show the Dr Yoshitaka Fujii who has hit the headlines recently because of research fraud leading to the retraction of a record number of publications but his namesake.
This embarrassing mistake is a good illustration of a serious problem in the medical (and no doubt other kinds of ) literature: trying to distinguish authors who have the same name. I’m pretty lucky in this respect, in that I have a taken my husband’s rather unusual name (Wagers are positively an endangered species compared to Smiths, Wangs, and Kims), and also because I publish in a relatively obscure field (journalology and publication ethics) from my one-woman company. So the chance of finding another E Wager writing about publication ethics from Princes Risborough is pretty low. But if you have a family name that’s very prevalent, and you work in a big field (say, oncology or cardiology), or a massive institution, it can be a real problem to ensure that credit or blame goes to the right person. Other problems include variants caused by transliteration between alphabets (e.g. Piotr or Peter, Tchaikovsky or Chaikovsky), accents (which disappear capriciously in certain fonts), and people who change their names.
The good news is that, in October, the Open Researcher & Contributor ID system (or ORCID) is being launched. According to the ORCID website, it “aims to solve the name ambiguity problem in scholarly communication,” and it will do this by creating unique identifiers for researchers. The developers are working with institutions and publishers so that the ID system will eventually link into journal submission systems, so that manuscripts will get the correct author IDs right from the start. However, the first steps will involve researchers adding their own publications.
While part of me sighs at the idea of being reduced to a 16-digit number, my more logical self rejoices at this nice example of a not-for-profit collaboration trying to make the world a better place by reducing confusion about names. That’s definitely worth a bouquet!
Liz Wager PhD is a freelance medical writer, editor, and trainer. She was the chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) (2009-2012).