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Which of the Alexander Smiths above is the author of a paper on hyperkähler geometry? The ORCID naming tagging system aims to solve mysteries like these. (It’s the Smith in the middle.)

Which of the Alexander Smiths above is the author of a paper on hyperkähler geometry? The ORCID naming tagging system aims to solve mysteries like these. (It’s the Smith in the middle.)


Journals to solve ‘John Smith’ common name problem by requiring author IDs

Name ambiguity. It's one of those problems that you're born with. If you're a Williams, Johnson, or Smith—the most common surnames in the United States—it can be tricky for people to find you on the Internet, especially if you also have a common first name, such as Michael, Mary, James, or Jennifer. For academic researchers, whose careers are measured largely by authorship on papers, name ambiguity is a killer. Wouldn't it be great if all scientists had a unique identifier that mapped to all of their papers, projects, and grants?

Wait no longer. The scientific community seems to be coalescing at last around a single researcher identification standard. In an open letter released online today, some of the largest academic publishers and scientific societies are announcing that they will not just encourage, but ultimately require, researchers to sign up with ORCID, a nonprofit organization that uniquely identifies people with a 16-digit number.

It was far from clear that ORCID would win this race. By 2009, when it was launched, there were already several competing ID systems. Industry giants such as Thomson Reuters offered a system called ResearcherID while Elsevier offered the Scopus author identifier. Although those researcher tagging systems were well-tailored to each company's services and databases, "they're proprietary," says Laurel Haak, executive director of ORCID which is registered in Delaware but has no physical headquarters. After consultation with the scientific community, a group of scientific organizations—Crossref, which provides the digital object identifier system for papers, and the Welcome Trust research charity were big players, Haak says—decided to create their own system.

It has been slow to catch fire because researchers, most of whom do not have a name ambiguity problem, had little incentive to sign up. But adoption has climbed steadily, with the total number of ORCID users now standing just shy of 2 million. The spread of locations from which they log in matches the increasingly global spread of scientific output. "China is our No. 2 country," Haak says.

That's no surprise to Weizhe Hong, a neuroscience postdoc at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "I signed up years ago when I was a Ph.D. student." He was highly motivated. "If people search for my papers using just my initial and last name, they get more than 10,000 hits. It's a disaster."

Hong points out that Asian names often have both sides of the ambiguity problem. Not only do many share the same surname—tens of millions of people are named Nguyen, more than 100 million named Wang—but transliteration to the Roman alphabet often results in multiple spellings of a single person's name. "And of course, if you get married and change your name," Hong says, "then you've got another problem."

ORCID relieves these "pain points" for scientists, Haak says, but she points out that ORCID doesn't do all the work for them. First, although scientists’ ID codes will tag all of their papers going forward, it is up to them to curate the work they've already published. She says that universities are helping their researchers with this tagging process.

Also dodged is the dead scientist problem. Though it is free to do so, "ORCID requires a living scientist to sign up for the system," Haak says. So the bulk of scientific authorship may just linger as a kind of bibliometric dark matter—unstructured data in an increasingly structured world of scientific publication. "There was hope back around 2008 that we could use computers to solve this problem," Haak says, by automatically identifying the people behind the author names in published papers. "But it turns out they're not good enough." Perhaps a grassroots system like Wikipedia will emerge to barcode all the dead authors, though Haak is skeptical the problem will ever be solved.

The letter published today is signed by the American Geophysical Union, eLife, EMBO, Hindawi, the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers, the Public Library of Science, and the Royal Society—the latter began mandating used of ORCID IDs as of 1 January but the rest have just pledged to reach that stage by year’s end. AAAS—(publisher of Science) is also joining. "At Science we support the use of ORCID IDs to verify author and reviewer identity," says Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt, who confirmed that the four AAAS journals will start requiring authors to provide ORCID IDs this year. And the recently formed Springer Nature publishing company confirmed, in an email to ScienceInsider, that they will encourage—but not require—ORCID IDs from authors of papers published in their 3000 journals.

Researchers contacted by ScienceInsider who hadn't heard of ORCID had mild enthusiasm for the idea of an identification code. "Yeah I would probably sign up," says Alexander Smith, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). "I know what I've published and I keep a list of my papers on my website, so that's how people tend to find the work I've done." But the commonness of his name is sometimes a nuisance for people trying to find him—or people with the same name. There is even another professor of medicine at his own university named Alexander Smith, not to mention a famous football quarterback who dominates Google searches for their shared name. "But the real problem is clinical," the UCSF researchers says. "There are other people named A. Smith in the hospital system and I get their patient notes and orders." ORCID won't solve that problem, but for publishers at least, it may be the start of a solution to name ambiguity.