Nature India | Indigenus

Lots in a name

A very interesting correspondence in Nature last week has stirred me into thinking hard about the naming conventions in South India. While north Indians generally follow the western naming patterns with the surname in the end preceded by the name of the person (Jagdish Yadav or Hari Prasad Singh), south Indians don’t follow this pattern. They generally have no family name. Instead they have a given name preceded by the name of the family’s ancestral village or town and father’s name. These are abbreviated into initials (J P Ramanathan, the last being the person’s actual name and the initials his father’s given name and ancestral village name).

To follow conventions, scientific publications have to pull out these initials from south Indian authors’ names and expand them to make up for the lack of a surname. As such, the merit of all their hard work is actually either credited to their father or ancestral village! I have been thinking what could be a reasonably good way to go around this problem. Any suggestions?

The Asian author name conundrum does seem a real concern and the sooner publications devise a way to address it, the better.


  1. Report this comment

    saikrishna said:

    Its true and ‘happens only in India’. I feel that the authors having such names should be given an option to chose their name for publication so that the credit goes to the right person.

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    Pradeepkumar A.P. said:

    The solution is simple: just adopt a consistent style when you publish a paper. For instance, I am from Kerala and my given name is Pradeep Kumar (note the space between the two), and my surname consists of my father’s house name (Anakkathil) and his given name (Purushothaman), thereby giving me quite a long-winding name Anakkathil Purushothaman Pradeep Kumar. Now one can’t expect editors or authors to get that all sorted out, so I simply publish as Pradeepkumar A.P. (note that the space between the given names have been omitted, making it into a single name). I can live with it. Its not a life and death situation.

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    Manju YK said:

    I think such authors should maintain consistency whether they expand the initials or prefer not to. So that when one searches by author name in Pubmed, all the publications by that author come together.

    It actually doesn’t matter who gets the credit, because in the other cases(Indian authors) it is the ’caste’which gets the credit, if not one’s father/village.

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    V.P. Venugopalan said:

    I think we South Indians do it right! We use the name that is given to us (and truly belongs to us), rather than the family name (which incidentally belongs to all in the family). Binomial nomenclature does it the same way. Homo sapiens is abbreviated as H.sapiens, not as S.Homo! It is the generic name that is made into an initial, not the specific name, which belong the organism. I think we should continue to do it the same way. My family name is, after all, a family name, not MY name. I have seen many of my colleagues “reversing” their names after crossing the Indian shores! I also wonder if, in ancient times, we Indians had the habit of keeping surnames. Can anyone tell me the surnames of the original authors Valmiki and Vyasa?

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    Arulmozhi Kandasamy said:


    Though you may see this issue in the perspective of scientific publications/indexing, this reminds me of a social movement initiated long ago to eradicate castes in Tamilnadu.

    Even in south India, you may see a huge difference in the name/surname aspect. For example Karnataka, Andhra and Kerala follow a pattern of hometown/father’s name and the given name. They even have surnames (such as Gowda). Since most surnames, especially in North India, depict the caste which lead to discrimination, the Tamilians took the stand not to use the caste name as a surname. You may still see some old Tamil names have their caste as surname, for example V.O.Chidambaram Pillai or Muthuramalinga Thevar.

    You can now understand how this ‘name’ would have high social (and political) implications in India.

    If we Indians get out of caste based surnames following the example of Tamilnadu, we could set an example for the world.

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    govindraj said:

    We could use caste name as surname.

    Govindaraju Aaguservai

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    T.R.Ravindran said:

    (1) It is probably right to say that many Indians don’t have family names: In many cases the caste names are used as surnames, so we have a huge number of people with surnames such as ‘Singh’ (that means ‘Lion’), ‘Rao’, ‘Reddy’, Naidu, Mudaliar, Nadar, etc. (2) Unlike in North India, in the South in most cases even if people have family names it is abbreviated as initials. (3) As has been suggested earlier in this blog, one can follow a consistent name while communicating scientific manuscripts to journals and stick to it irrespective of geographical location. (4) The problem is acute for South Indian women who appear to be ‘forced’ to abbreviate their given name as ‘initial’ and, in most cases (especially for women from Tamil Nadu), give their father’s name as their ‘name’, leading to some kind of ‘identity crisis’. In such cases people could be clear from the beginning to use their given names in explicit form and abbreviate fathers’ names. I guess only when (South) Indian women come out of India such a problem arises. (5)If one finds that some websites automatically ‘initialize’ given names, one can suitably make entries to reflect the desired name.

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    M K Unnikrishnan said:

    One important reason for variation in names is because some (not all) journals stubbornly insist on expanding the initials.

    I have always preferred to write my name as M. K. Unnikrishnan. But when the journal insists on expanding the initials, it yields a very long and unwieldy result, unpronounceable to most people outside my state.

    Name is primarily intended to give an identity: no more and no less. Why cant initials be permitted by all journals? The standard format for citation makes use of initials universally.

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    Benny Lautrup said:

    This problem is pervasive. In the analysis of the SPIRES database carried out by myself and coworkers1, we often found different names that we suspected pointed to only one author. We could not obtain information that would safely identify these cases and had to live with the problem in our analysis. In my own case, I have for accidental reasons over the years published under the names “B. E. Lautrup”, “B. Lautrup”, “Benny Lautrup”, and “Benny E. Lautrup”. Being quite a rare name in science, this is not a great problem, although it does influence my citation counts. But for someone named “John Smith” or “J. Smith”, misidentification could be serious. Finally, in countries where women change their last name after marriage (in mid career) and use it ever after, it can be difficult for an outside agency (say, a citation collecting organisation) to arrive at a complete list of publications.

    1 S. Lehmann, A. D. Jackson, and B. E. Lautrup, Measures for measures. Nature 444, 1003-1004 (2006)

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    Mangesh Thorat said:

    All said and done, it is time for unique author IDs also. Technology is ripe to handle such database, in fact Web of Science has already started ResearcherID, it’s time all indexing agencies agree on uniform author ID system. Though their coming together sounds a bit difficult.

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    M. P. Joy said:

    It is a fact that there are different naming conventions and it can create a lot of confusion. If one consistently uses one name then there won’t be any problem in ‘citation’ analysis.

    To tell the truth, in many parts of the world there are no uniform naming conventions at all, for example in Kerala (India), where I am from. I grew up using ‘Joy’ as the only name on almost all occasions and in official records (school certificates) it was either M. P. Joy or Joy M. P. My M.Sc degree certificate has M.P.Joy but Ph.D certificate says Joy M. P., both from the same University. I never thought that there is any distinction between them. I published all my papers with the name M. P. Joy, some with expansions of my initials.

    However, it created a problem when I left India. I had to write a ‘surname’ which I didn’t exactly have. During the last few years, I have used not only ‘Joy’ but also the expansions of the initials ‘M’ as well as ‘P’ as my ‘surname’, on different occasions. In publications I continue to use my first name ‘Joy’ as the last or surname, and for visa related purposes I use my father’s first name (corresponding to the initial ‘P’) as the last name.

    As a remark, the author P. B. Patil mentioned in his correspondence ( ) that ‘Kutty’ is a surname from Kerala, which is incorrect. It is like ‘Kumar’, generally part of the first name.

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    S.Chandrasekhar said:


    Just have the name as you have been named. If you have to use your father’s(or husband’s) name first and your name last, so be it. It may be long and winding but it’s OK. There is nothing to feel uneasy about it. In fact, it helps the identity. Think about the Koreans. as my friend says, if you throw a stone in Korea one out of four you will hit a “Kim”. After all no one calls anyone by their entire name, it is only for publications.

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    Bernd Kappenberg said:

    I would like to add to this discussion that researchers from non-English-speaking countries suffer from another type of name variation: diacritical marks.

    Though it is an established principle of international private law that the spelling of names is subject to the regulations (and alphabet) of the respective home country, many researchers give in to cultural and technical pressure and change their names to US-ASCII-compatible forms.

    So the name Brockmöller, for example, may come in the additional variations Brockmoller (“scalped”), or Brockmoeller (transcribed).

    Add some computer flaws or databases from the pre-Unicode era and you will also find Brockmo¨ller, Brockmo[insert image of o-umlaut here]ller, Brockmöller, Brockmo#ller, Brockmo$ller, Brockmo’ller, Brockmo ller, Brockmo«ller, Brockmo"ller or Brockm�ller.

    So carrying a name with diacritical marks and spelling it in its legally correct form will considerably lower your citation rankings – especially if you are a researcher from Central or Eastern Europe, as your special characters will not even be supported in the otherwise diacritics-friendly Western character set.

    Bernd Kappenberg

    European Studies

    Leibniz University, Hanover, Germany

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    Subhra Priyadarshini said:

    Very interesting observation, Bernd. Any suggestion how one might go around this criticial problem? Will making a special mention to the publishers help?

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    Bernd Kappenberg said:

    Dear Subhra Priyadarshini,

    I mentioned it to the editors of Science Direct and after some time they had cleared the faulty entries in their database.

    I also mentioned it several times to the editors of Nature, but they still use those little images of special characters on their web pages instead of proper Unicode encoding.

    The uniform author ID sounds to me like a good idea to reunite past publications with different spellings in order to have correct citation rankings.

    However, for the future we need better cultural awareness (a “š” is NOT a “s”!) as well as consequent implementation of Unicode in all concerned databases and applications.