10 August 2009

Of Beagles and men: a cautionary tale of Charles Darwins

Are you one of the people who finds it difficult to see the problem we're trying to address with NicNames? C'mon, don't be shy ... I know you're out there.

Sure, researchers at our institutions publish work under a variety of name variants. But we know who they (really) are, so why not slap the same name on all their papers so they're easier for our users to find? It's how libraries do it.

Susan Stone from Intergalactic University might produce research as Sue Stone, S. Stone, S. G. Stone, S. Gilligan Stone and write horror novels as Susan Sly Stallone, but we could ignore all that untidiness and bring everything together under a single authoritative name. It would be so much neater.

Except that it's not. And I'm going to prove it.

Today, while I was adding some new records to Swinburne Research Bank, I noticed a familiar author name come up on a paper. Let's say the name was Charles Darwin so I don't have to give away any real names. And the artist to be known as Charles Darwin is familiar to me because he works at Swinburne's humanities faculty and has contributed lots of his work already (under the name Charles Darwin).

But the Charles Darwin I saw today was not Charles Darwin, Swinburne atheist. It was Charles Darwin from MIT, co-author of Emily Pankhurst, Swinburne professor of innovation.

Oh dear. So now what?

Here's how Swinburne Research Bank's author browse handles two completely different Charles Darwins spelled exactly the same way.

Would your repository be any different? I doubt it.

If all we have is their names, two Charles Darwins will always appear as the same person, both in search results and browse menus. And in a display like this, there's no way for our users tell the difference between them.

We need to be able to record and present defining features---such as fields of research and institutional affiliations---to be able to make sense of these names. It's all about context. And this is where NicNames will come in handy.

In the meantime, we at Swinburne Research Bank have a problem, and we won't be alone. I bet there's more than one Susan Smith out there. How are you going to answer when she knocks at your door?

--Rebecca Parker, NicNames Subject Matter Expert

Note: There are a few Easter eggs in the browse table. Be sure to let me know in the Comments if you find them.