What if every scientist (and every author) had a unique identification number?

April 10, 2009 | By | 4 Replies More

The March 27, 2009 edition of Science explores the issue of personal identification numbers for scientists. Why? Because it’s getting difficult to tell authors apart.

A universal numbering system could aid scientists trying to stay on top of the literature, help universities more readily track staff productivity, and enable funding agencies to better monitor the bang they’re getting for their buck. An effective identification number might also make it easier to find information about an author’s affiliations, collaborators, interests, or simply their current whereabouts.

This article indicates that published scientific papers are growing in quantity by 3% annually. Many authors are getting married or divorced and therefore changing their names. Some journals have varying style rules for noting first names and initials. Chinese authors often transliterate their names using opinion. “At least 20 different Chinese names, many of them common, are transliterated as “Wang Hong.” And, of course, there are many scientists not of Chinese descent who have common names who don’t want to be confused with others.

The article goes on to discuss various approaches for a assigning unique numbers to researchers. Who would control the system and how would it be enforced such that it would be accurate and fair? I assume that there are many scientists named John Smith who would like to know.

When I was 18, I changed my name, which was previously Richard Vincent Vieth, Jr. (I was named after my father). When mail came to me, I wanted to know for sure who it was for. I also wanted to get rid of the “Junior” which I thought to be pretentious. By the time I was 18, I had decided that I wanted my own name so that there would not be confusion (I changed my name in a court proceeding). As a teenager, I wondered why, with all the names out there, parents would name their kids after themselves. I do understand the motivations, but I have also very much enjoyed having a name that is almost unique in United States. Our personal level, then, I do see the value in having unique identifiers for people trying to communicate a complex world.

I don’t want to sound naive. I realize the privacy concerns at stake were everyone to have a number with which someone else could quickly delve into their private affairs. This has led to much discussion about the extent to which social security numbers should be used as universal identifiers, for example. In this climate dominated by privacy concerns, it was a good counter-balance to read of the value of assigning unique identifiers, at least for the limited use of specifying authorship.


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Category: American Culture, Community, Networking, Science, Writing

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    As a somewhat-soon-to-be-publishing incoming graduate student, and as someone who has also undergone a cosmetic name change, I support the idea of ID numbers for scientists. In other domains I would see such a change perhaps as potentially risky and privacy-invading, but I place a bit higher respect on scientific organizations than corporate or even government bureaucracies.

    I think a shift is truly needed- I already have a difficult time poking through authors on Google Scholar, a lengthy search that will only get worse as more people with similar names publish. I also have a fairly common last name- there are already several Dr. Erika Prices out in the ether, which may prove troublesome if I do achieve a PhD.

    As for the other topic discussed in this post, I also find the naming of children after their parents completely self-worshiping and troublesome. Just as parents feel compelled to have children that are biologically "theirs", they wish to have children with similar or identical names. I even find the concept of giving a child an extremely common first name, so that they will "fit in", completely objectionable.

    Then again, I didn't change my name to something utterly crazy and unique when I had the chance. I obviously see the social benefits to following naming conventions. When people learn that my name was changed, they always assume that I'm married, so ingrained is the cultural shorthand of names.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    There was an article addressing this issue a few months ago in the Communications of the ACM, the one dry professional/academic journal that I still read. In brief, there is a massive problem with finding technical paper citations because of the variability in name presentation and name overlaps. If every human had a distinct ID, then such problems would be simple to solve.

    However, privacy advocates are aghast at the resulting issue that no one would be able to escape surveillance. It is an interesting subject that will hopefully continue to be discussed for a few more decades before it is carved in stone as law.

  3. Mary says:

    Sometimes you need an avatar online not because you want to hide, but because you want to stand out. – I tweeted that not long ago. When you have a John Smith sort of name, you have to work harder to get noticed, to have your creations matched up with you and not someone with the same name. It's like trademarking for a business. Not only is it a benefit for the author/scientist/creator, it also helps those who are trying to follow your work.

    I have no answer for the privacy question, except that if you don't want to stand out, perhaps you could change your name to something really common.

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    There is a problem that people ignore with the idea of unique identifier. It would be too easy to forge such an ID, allowing anyone to use thie id.

    Several years ago, my wife's sister and family move back to Nashville. They stayed with us for a short period while looking for a place to rent.

    One evening, I drove my brother-in-law to look at a house for rent (his truck had broken down and he needed a ride). The current resident had a stack of rental agreement papers for the landlord who he said lived out of town, and everything looked on the level. My brother-in-law put up $250 deposit and signed the paperwork, and was told to come over the following Saturday for the key.

    Saturday, he had to work, so I drove my sister-in-law over for the key and found that about 25 other people had signed a rental agreement and paid various amounts for the deposit ranging frmo $175 to over $2000.

    The con artist had stolen the identity of an Indiana University professor by using information taken from an on-line resume. He had used false credential to obtain a drivers license, and several credit cards in addition to using the professors information to rent the house.

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