Necessary but not sufficient: unique author identifiers


To cite: Harrison AM, Harrison AM. BMJ Innov 2016;2:141–143. For better or worse, English is the predominant language used by the international scientific and medical communities to disseminate knowledge. The 26 characters of the Latin alphabet are also arranged in names: non-unique patterns. At the time of the origins of modern biomedical research, names may have been relatively unique, at least within the biomedical research community. However, this is no longer the case. We now possess the capacity to visualise atoms using atomic force microscopy. We also possess the capacity to launch telescopes into space to peer into distant galaxies. However, biomedical researchers do not possess the capacity to automatically distinguish between two researchers who happen to share the same, or similar, names. One decade after the publication of articles on this subject in PLOS Medicine and PLOS Blogs, the embarrassment of this realisation is eclipsed perhaps only by the continued need to plea for a solution to this ‘intractable’ problem. Before the National Institutes of Health (NIH) of the USA and its National Library of Medicine (NLM) launched the modern PubMed system, the math, physics and computer science community solved this problem with the creation of arXiv in the early 1990s. Like modern digital object identifiers (DOIs) for unique electronic documents, this largely self-curated system linked nonunique, ‘clickable’ author names with unique author identifiers. Although arXiv and self-curation are not without flaw, this problem has plagued the biomedical research community since at least the inception of arXiv over two decades ago. As a dearth of electronic archival technology is not the problem, what continues to drive this problem? When the biomedical research community was relatively small (approximately one to three authors per publication), the first–last/corresponding author paradigm sufficed. At least as recently as the 1970s, biomedical researchers could still publish dozens of pages meticulously describing how something seemingly as trivial as ‘dirt’ on electron microscopy slides was actually a seminal scientific discovery. With the modern pressure of word limits, it cannot be known how much insight into this process of discovery of new knowledge is now lost to the need for concision. International collaborations with thousands of physicists now relegate authorship to alphabetical appendices. In the case of one of the first genomics publications with >1000 authors, the archaic first–last/corresponding author paradigm was maintained. By the 1950s, it was ‘too much to expect a research worker to spend an inordinate amount of time searching for the bibliographic descendants of antecedent papers’, which led to the creation of an impact factor. Initially used in part by libraries to select the best journals to purchase, the use of the term impact factor in this context is different from its modern use by the Science Citation Index (Thomson Reuters). By the 2000s, the need for an index to quantify individual researcher productivity led one physicist to create the h-index. However, when the Royal Society of Chemistry attempted to determine the most impactful chemist by h-index, this task was deemed almost intractable due to the amalgamation of researchers with the name Tanaka K. This use of the Western-driven (surname/family name| given/first name|middle initial) system is particularly problematic for Asian biomedical researchers in general: Japan, China and especially Korea, where only a few surnames predominate and middle names often do not exist. The NIH recently announced a novel Relative Citation Ratio to better measure the true impact of scientific articles. However, the NIH/NLM National Center for Biotechnology Information COMMENTARY

DOI: 10.1136/bmjinnov-2016-000135

Cite this paper

@inproceedings{Harrison2016NecessaryBN, title={Necessary but not sufficient: unique author identifiers}, author={Andrew Marc Harrison and Anthony M. Harrison}, booktitle={BMJ innovations}, year={2016} }