Transgender researchers ask Google not to leave them for dead

The Google Scholar search engine is troubling trans researchers because of some changes they understand to be detrimental to them. The most important academic search platform has been brought in line with other search tools and publishers. Tess Tanenbaum came out as transgender on July 4, 2019, and from that moment on, problems began when seeking information about research conducted prior to her life change.

It is very difficult to bury an old name, especially when you are involved in research activities. In the specific case of Tess, who had conducted publications on game design and storytelling. In the spring of 2020 it all started when Tanenbaum, teaching at the University of California, gave some of his previous work to his students to use for homework. When a student used Google Scholar, a service that the technology giant uses to search for academic literature, she found that publications with that name gave the author as dead.

The harsh reality of transgender researchers

The class, which was virtual, had a moment of anxiety when the name of the researcher in question was listed as dead. In front of the entire class, Tess’s past life data was published. Although there was no harmful intent from the platform, Tanenbaum recounted, “I had this profoundly traumatic response and it compromised my ability to evaluate the student.” Tess has been one of many academics who have had to urge Google, in recent years, to give people more control over how the service works with their names.

Like her, many others have raised their voices in criticism of how Google Scholar subjects trans scholars and researchers. Mainly at the unwelcome mention of the inclusion, in many cases traumatic, of transgender people’s names before they transitioned. Tanenbaum also commented that “Google Scholar remains a source of ongoing and active harm for anyone who changes their “name,” especially transgender people.”

New policies to solve a new problem

Google Scholar currently allows researchers to change their name as it appears on their profile page. There, scholars select a list of their publications and update the names of authors on articles, in case an editor has made any updates. However, even though a person may have executed a name change, the platform engine may display the previous name that appeared on the documents that have been updated.

The company’s rebranding policy has left Scholar out of step with what is coming from major publishers, other academic search engines and national laboratories. More than 60 publishers have a policy that grants transgender researchers the right to change their name on all previously published work, such as the giants Elsevier and Springer. A similar case happened to researcher Robyn Speer, upon requesting updates to her name in 2019, there she discovered that sites such as Semantic Scholar, ResearchGate and the Internet Archive search engine removed her name in less than a week. This situation in journals and conference proceedings can take several months.