Picking her new name led Tess Tanenbaum to ponder many questions. Am I Josie or Hanna? Should it sound similar to her previous masculine name? What will it look like as a signature? She began to walk around with a shortlist in her pocket. Ultimately she picked Theresa Jean, or Tess, because it made her full name sound like a pulp detective character or a superhero, and is reminiscent of her daughter’s middle name, Tesla. On July 4, 2019, Tess came out as transgender—her own independence day.
But burying her old name wasn’t easy, especially when it came to the research she had published on game design and storytelling. In spring 2020, Tanenbaum gave her class at the University of California, Irvine, copies of some of her past work along with an assignment. But one resourceful student used Google Scholar, the company’s service for searching academic literature, to find other publications, some of which contained her former name, or dead name. The class was virtual and students shared their finished work through a Discord server, and her old name was posted in front of the whole class. There was no harmful intent, but Tanenbaum had an intense feeling of needing to hide. “I had this profound trauma response, and it compromised my ability to evaluate the student,” she says.
Tanenbaum is one of many academics that have urged Google in recent years to give people more agency over how their names appear on its service. She and other critics of Google Scholar say it subjects trans academics and researchers to deadnaming, the unwelcome and even traumatic mention of a transgender person’s name from before they transitioned. “Google Scholar remains a source of ongoing and active harm to anyone who changes their name, especially transgender people,” Tanenbaum says.
Google Scholar allows researchers to change their name as it appears on their profile page, where researchers curate a list of their publications, and will update author names on papers if a publisher has made an update. But even if a person has changed their name on Google Scholar, search results can still show their previous name on papers where it has not been updated. The company’s name change policy puts Scholar out of step with major publishers, other academic search engines, and national laboratories. More than 60 publishers have some policy that gives transgender researchers the right to change their names on previously published work, including giants like Elsevier and Springer.
When researcher Robyn Speer began her transition and started requesting updates to her name in 2019, she found that sites like ResearchGate, Semantic Scholar, and the Internet Archive’s search engine for scholarly documents got rid of her old name within a week. Journals and conference proceedings could take months. But she’s still deadnamed on Google Scholar, where citations of papers under her previous name can appear in search results for her current name.
Searches for ConceptNet, a software project that helps computers understand the meaning of words which she has worked on since 2005, surface results that include her old name. Some come from journals that are no longer active, meaning Speer can’t ask the publisher to update her name.
“The changes we’re asking for would require Google to give authors control over their own information, and I think that just doesn’t fit into Google’s worldview,” Speer says. “In Google’s worldview, if algorithms disagree with people then the algorithm is right and the people are wrong.”
In 2019, Speer’s complaints led to the creation of a bug report inside Google flagging the problems trans researchers have with Google Scholar, according to multiple people familiar with the matter. In May this year, a Google employee responding to a tweet by Speer said the bug report remains open and categorized as high priority.