May 10, 2013

Code me please

By Carl Gustafson

My name is Harrison AM and I am not unique. In fact, according to PubMed, there are at least three of me. Also, I cannot claim to be the only Harrison AM who has published on the subject of surgery. Or even surgical education…

For the Herasevich’s of the world this may not be an issue, but for the Harrison’s it is. In a world of increasingly sophisticated electronic medical records, unmanned drones, and shopping prediction software, why does the foundation of biomedical science authorship continue to operate on the premise that the non-random combination of letters we were assigned at birth might be unique? This premise would be hilarious, were it not true.

In addition to the generalized inconvenience, confusion, and frustration this problem causes, it poses increasingly significant challenges within the growing realm of biomedical sciences. For example, the computation of scientific ranking systems, such as the h-index, is riddled with inaccuracies [1]. For the uninitiated, the h-index is a recent, but widely accepted metric for measuring the productivity and impact of individual scientists [2]. Conceptually, this differs from citation indexing and impact factor, which, historically, were developed for measuring impact at the journal level [3]. As another example, the biomedical literature is plagued with irregularities that extend beyond the manipulation of data [4, 5]. Examples include duplicate publishing, improper citation, lack of co-author consent to publish, and inappropriate omissions in authorship. Presumably, these issues extend into the realms of the resume, grant application, and tenure process.

Based on these observations, I propose PubMed allow biomedical authors to register for unique numerical identifiers, which would be linked to our non-random combination of letters, affectionately know as names. This system could function behind the scenes and thus need not be obtrusive. It would solve many of the problems I have outlined above, as well as the interesting phenomenon of the author name-change. We have unique identifiers for genes. Why not humans? Furthermore, there is already precedent for a similar system through Scopus. But who uses Scopus?

Unsurprisingly, my post-hoc analysis has revealed that I am by no means the first person to conceive of this simple-minded idea [6, 7]. In fact, this subject extends beyond the scope of biomedical research [8, 9]. However, for some reason, the idea has yet to take hold. Why is this? I believe it is simply the result of a lack of widespread dissemination and discussion of this idea. Thus, I write this essay with the specific readership of the Education in Diversity Blog in mind. It seems an appropriate forum to raise such an obvious and important issue that deeply affects us all.

In conclusion, due to a “clerical” error, I lament the loss of my prized, first-ever authorship to the sea that is Harrison A.

Andrew M. Harrison is a third-year M.D.-Ph.D. student in the Mayo Medical / Mayo Graduate Schools. He is originally from New Jersey and graduated from Rutgers University in 2010. Andrew works in Dr. Vitaly Herasevich’s lab and his research focus is in the area of clinical informatics.


1. Phillip Broadwith. 2012. End of the road for h-index rankings. RCS’s Chemistry World:

2. Hirsch JE. 2005. An index to quantify an individual's scientific research output. PNAS:

3. Garfield E. 1955. Citation indexes for science; a new dimension in documentation through association of ideas. Science:

4. Coats AJ. 2009. Ethical authorship and publishing. Int J Cardiol:

5. Retraction Watch blog “authorship issues” category:

6. Richard Cave. 2006. Unique Author Identification. PLOS BLOGS:

7. Enserink M. 2009. Scientific publishing. Are you ready to become a number? Science:

8. Madigan D, Genkin A, Lewis DD, Argamon S, Fradkin D, Ye L. 2005. Author identification on the large scale. Proc of the Meeting of the Classification Society of North America:

9. De Vel O, Anderson A, Corney M, Mohay G. 2001. Mining e-mail content for author identification forensics. ACM Sigmod Record:

Acknowledgement: Gustafson CT for helpful revisions.

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