Scientists Need Stage Names

barbatti_streetThe choice of a scientific name is a delicate task: redundancy, complexity, prejudice, and other variables may impact the scientist career for better or worse.

It was 1909 when he was born in Brazil after his parents migrated from Italy. He worked his whole life for a local railway company (after being a clown assistant for a short period); he had nine sons and daughters and lived till his death always in the same house in a small street of a city in the mountains near Rio de Janeiro. Later, his descendants, most of them living in the same neighborhood, convinced the city hall to rename the street after him.

His name was Mario Barbatti.

That Mario Barbatti was my grandfather from my father’s side. I’m obviously, like the small street, named after him. However, if we google for “Mario Barbatti”, we won’t find any reference to him (or the street, for what matters). All entries will be about me, which is not surprising given my grandpa’s competitive disadvantage of being dead for more than twenty years.

Well, right now my name is pretty unique. There are no redundancies in scientific databases like the Web of Science, Scopus or Google Scholar.

Redundant names have become a specially relevant problem for scientists. Grant competitions, institutional evaluations, job applications—in many occasions, their names will be searched in those databases to access their productivity indexes. Of course, this search will be messed up if they share their names with other scientists. All doctors Thomas Muller, Juan Gonzalez, and Zhang Wei know well what I’m talking about.

Although my name isn’t so common, the Barbatti family is growing and growing. There are already few other Barbattis in the databases. There is a “B Barbatti”, who published a famous book on Berber carpets in Morocco and a “C Barbatti” with publications on general relativity, magnetism, and materials science. It’s just a matter of time for that another “M Barbatti” or, even worse, another “Mario Barbatti”  shows up in the Web of Science, completely messing my statistics.

In retrospective, I regret to not have used my middle name initial when I first start publishing. I don’t know which expectations my parents had for me, but I have a Roman emperor’s name for middle name, “Tiberius”; making me “Mario T Barbatti”. This middle-name initial could help avoid (or postpone) eventual redundancies.

Name redundancy isn’t the only problem a scientist faces when they choose their scientific name. One of my former college professors had to keep using her married name even after her divorce. My master thesis advisor, with one of those typically long Latin names, was astonished when he figured out that databases recorded him in at least three different ways, “VC Faria”, “V Castro Faria”, “V de Castro Faria”.

And there is also the problem of the diacriticals. A doctor “Kovačević” (the second most popular surname in Croatia, I understand) may easily become “Kovacevic” or, even worse, “Kova♦evi♦”.

Globalization is another concern. A perfectly fine traditional name in one country, may be unpronounceable in another. Asian names, for instance, are very difficult to be memorized (let alone pronounced) by Westerns. In particular, Chinese names order, in which family and given names may have different positions depending on how the person chooses to transliterate their name, is absolutely confusing. (I know that this inter-cultural misunderstanding also works in the other way around. For this reason, when I go to China, I adopt a Chinese name. I’m known there as the honorable professor Bruce Lee.)

In Kerala, a very common name is “Nampoothiripad”. If you have a name like that, odds are that people will misspell it everywhere (which is fatal for a scientist) and the chairperson at the conference will just bark some incomprehensible grunts when introducing your talk.

I’ve never seen any study on that, but I wouldn’t be surprised that exactly the same paper signed either by “M Stuart” or by “M Gonzalez” would get more citations with the American-sounding name than with the Spanish-sounding one. Most probably, common prejudices against race, religion, sex or cultural background are widespread in the academy as well.

But then, if you aren’t luck enough of holding a white-male Anglo-Saxon name, you can’t do much about it; unless, you’re willing to go for an extreme renaming. For instance, if I translated my name into English, it would be “M. T. Beards”. It sounds really nice, don’t you think? On the other hand, I know that in India, “barbatti” is a long green bean, which turns me in a not so flattering sort of “Dr. Bean”.

Anyway, if you’re a young scientist just about to author your first publication, choose carefully your scientific name, maybe just like an artist chooses a stage name. In many places you won’t really have the freedom to change your name at your will without facing a Kafkaesque nightmare, but you can at least play with a few elements to try to optimize your presence in the bylines. With open mind, look at the following questions:

  • Is your name unique enough to avoid obvious redundancies?
  • Can you write out a simplified version without diacritics?
  • I’m not playing against it, but are you really sure you’re going for your married name?
  • The most important databases are in English and they assume that the family name is the last one. Does your name order comply with that?
  • Can you use a simpler version of your long unpronounceable surname?


Categories: Productivity

Tags: , , , ,

3 replies

  1. Oi Cesar… Fiquei surpreso ao receber sua NewsLetter com a foto e este completo artigo sobre as origens do seu nome, se é que compreendi bem, mas, o que vale é toda essa informação e suas importantes comparações, projetando o nome da familia “Barbatti” a nivel mundial…

  2. Great advice to scientists newly entering their fields – maybe they’ll eventually need a name plus a phrase of a few words. Choose carefully, youngsters. What is cute for a 20 year old is embarrassing for a 50 year old – same as with tattoos.

  3. Stage names. I am about as far from being a scientist as one can get, and still this is something that I spend at least a few minutes thinking about every day. We want to stand out and be recognized, and yet at times, we long for anonymity in a world where true privacy no longer exists. We want to be genius in our chosen works and still move among the masses appearing to be just one of them whenever the desire strikes us. It seems an impossible dream, but the impossibility of it does not lessen our desire for it.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog and reading the first chapter of Night Vision. I hope you stay awhile in my non-scientific, overly romantic world where I hide behind a pen name and tell stories about dreams that haunt my waking hours. idream3223

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