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Your scientific doppelgangers

By Margaret Harris

I’m not talking about physical look-a-likes here, but researchers who share your name – and thus might be mistaken for you when someone searches the scientific literature.

In my case, I can’t say that the prospect worries me very much. Although I am only the fifth-most-cited “M L Harris” on the ISI Web of Knowledge – lagging behind a Mary L Harris who studies bowel disease; a Meghan L Harris who works for the Iowa Department of Public Health; and two unspecified M L Harrises who study lung problems in London and environmental toxins in Canada – my doppelgangers and I work in such different fields that it would be hard to confuse us.

However, I can accept that modern-day A Einsteins – of whom there are a surprisingly large number – might feel differently on the issue. The same goes for a physicist I met at a conference once: his name was Slobodan Milosevic.

Name confusion is a particular concern for people whose names have multiple accepted English transliterations, like Xu/Hsu or Müller/Mueller. Different publishers’ conventions can mean that such people become, in effect, their own scientific doppelgangers, with multiple database identities that actually refer to the same person. A separate-but-related problem arises when researchers change surnames after marriage, or add a second initial. Stephen Hawking, for example, publishes as both “Hawking S” and “Hawking S W”. Although he’s probably too famous to care now, lesser-known researchers can suffer if name confusion means that hiring committees and potential collaborators get an incomplete picture of their work.

To address this problem, various organizations have sponsored initiatives that attempt to
assign unambiguous identities to scientific researchers. Many scientific publishers – including IOP Publishing, which publishes – are working on their internal author databases, trying to eliminate duplicate entries and create clear and accurate records of each scientist’s work.

However, the scope of such databases is usually limited to a single publisher. There are a few broader efforts out there, including the American Institute of Physics’ Uniphy service, but so far, there is no “global, cross-sector, cross-institutional system that research institutions and all types of publishers can share”; like the one this article from Chemical and Engineering News suggests is needed.

But is such a vast database really necessary? Or are scientific doppelgangers a minor problem, one that could be solved with better record-keeping on a smaller scale?

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  1. Bee

    The arxiv also has author identifiers. Though, with a scary name like mine that luckily has no umlauts, I don’t really need one.

  2. Carl

    If one has access to ISI Web of Knowledge then one can obtain a
    unique identifier known as ResearcherID ( ).
    You can then add your publications list for all to see/search etc.


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