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Frustrated scientists convince astronomy journal to implement trans inclusive name change policy

A group of united astronomers have successfully convinced Europe’s leading astronomy journal Astronomy & Astrophysics to institute a name change policy for transgender people and others. ‘It’s really frustrating that such a large organisation needed an initiative from outside to adopt a more inclusive policy,’ says astronomer Emily Hunt.

On 18 February 2021, Science editor Jake S. Yeston published the blog post called A new name change policy. It announced the possibility for authors to change their names in previously published papers across the Science spectrum. The blog post stated:

‘… recent outreach by, and on behalf of, transgender scientists has impressed upon us the importance of respecting authors’ privacy and autonomy in correcting the scientific record.’  

Yeston here refers to the growing discourse initiated by the trans community to develop a policy to allow scientists to change their name on published publications. One example is the Nature blog post by Theresa Jean Tanenbaum called Publishers: let transgender scholars correct their names. The motivation behind this movement is that people who transition often adopt a new name, resulting in papers prior to the transition bearing the old name they no longer associate with their identity. 

Complete lack of understanding

In the past couple of months, more journals followed the same path as Science, including Nature. However, that doesn’t hold for Astronomy & Astrophysics (A&A). ‘That was really disappointing, as A&A is one of Europe's largest astronomy journals,’ says Emily Hunt, PhD candidate at Heidelberg University in Germany. 

When astronomer Elspeth Lee raised the issue with A&A (see Tweet below), the journal’s response was inadequate. Hunt: ‘Sadly, the editor showed a complete lack of understanding. That’s when the astronomy community decided to take action.’

Joe Callingham

Viral tweet leads to action 

For instance, astronomers from all around the world refused to review and submit papers to A&A over this issue. Hunt coordinated the efforts of writing an open letter to A&A. Leiden astronomer Joe Callingham also read about Lee’s issues with A&A on Twitter. ‘I did not know Elspeth personally. But I thought that the policy A&A was committed to following was unjust, particularly for minorities whose identity is closely linked to their name.’ 

As a member of Leiden Observatory’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) committee, Callingham wanted to help any way he could to change A&A’s policy. ‘The best way I thought to do that was via a public letter requesting a name change. Leiden EDI Chair Sanjana Panchagnula and Dutch EDI Chair Samaya Nissanke also took this on and submitted a letter on behalf of the Dutch astronomy community.’ 

Public letters are successful 

After the efforts of many astronomers, A&A announced on 19 July that they had revised their policy on name changes. Hunt: ‘For me personally, this doesn’t change that much, as I already transitioned before my academic career. But for people who are transitioning during their career, it’s of course great. Hopefully, they can have great careers for the rest of their lives, without having to explain why past publications bear the wrong name.’ 

Also, the inclusive name change is not only useful for transgender people, Hunt explains. ‘Think of people who are married or are getting a divorce, or change their religion. It’s nice that there is this option to change your name.’  

Happy, but frustrated

Still, Hunt and Callingham also express their frustration. ‘I find it really frustrating that these big journals, who have the resources to do their own EDI work, apparently need external people to push them to make positive changes,’ says Hunt. ‘It shouldn’t be this way. It cost me a lot of valuable time and stress.’ 

How could journals be more inclusive? 

‘I think chair persons of journal boards should be aware of the impact their decisions have on what is published, how it is published, and who is published. Potentially, an EDI member of a journal board would be useful for ensuring that is the case,’ says Callingham.  

‘We live in a time where we no longer print paper hardcopies, and there are robust electronic measures to ensure papers are correctly cited. Such advances give flexibility to retroactive changes to papers without being a threat to the literature,’ he continues.

‘Hopefully they can learn from this,’ says Hunt. ‘The editor in chief reacted disappointingly to Lee’s request. This caused a completely avoidable PR disaster that could’ve been prevented if better EDI policies and initiatives were already in place at the journal. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen again in the future, and that science can continue making positive steps towards inclusivity and equality for all,’ she concludes.  

Text: Bryce Benda

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