Scholar finds output written in the stars

Beware online misrepresentation, says academic mistakenly linked to tarot book. Chris Parr reports

November 22, 2012

Credit: AlamyAnomalous experience academic erroneously linked to tarot book warns others to check their online identities

Academics should regularly “garden” their online identities to ensure that they are not being incorrectly credited with work that could damage their scholarly reputation.

That is the view of Melissa Terras, co-director of University College London’s Centre for Digital Humanities, who was surprised to discover when she logged on to her Google Scholar profile that she had apparently authored a range of papers and book chapters on tarot and projective hypothesis.

This did not sit easily with Dr Terras, who describes herself on her self-titled blog as a “committed atheist” who “doesn’t care for the occult”.

“Probably the first thing you do when you are going to work with someone else, or you want to know more about their work, is to google them,” Dr Terras told Times Higher Education.

“If conference organisers are looking for a guest speaker, they will do the same. I was uncomfortable being associated with that field, but if people (had) a quick look at me online, that’s what they’d find.”

After ruling out the possibility of a namesake having written the erroneously attributed articles, Dr Terras ascertained that the error had originally occurred in the publisher Springer’s online database, which carried information about a book it distributed online titled Re-Symbolization of the Self.

But she said that it took six days of “constant emailing” and the threat of legal action before the records were changed.

Dr Terras has published an apology from Springer on her own blog, which says that the “very rare” error was due to an “operator” at a data supplier mistakenly using “an already filled-out sample template for updating the chapter metadata”. “It shows how little we know about the back-end of how online systems work,” she said.

Unfortunately, because websites cross-reference each other so frequently, Dr Terras remains associated with tarot on a number of websites.

“It was really interesting to see how that original error came back - it locks you into the system as being the author of a certain thing, and takes away your control over your academic identity. I am going to have to go to inaccurate websites manually and issue cease-and-desist orders to each of them,” she said.

Neil Jacobs, programme director for digital infrastructure at the higher education technology consortium Jisc, urged academics to check their online attributions on a regular basis and to sign up for an Open Researcher and Contributor Identifier (Orcid). The system, launched last month, assigns a unique code to each researcher, making it easier for electronic databases to identify authors accurately.

“The success of Orcid will depend on take-up but it is embedded in the typical workflows for researchers so we are hopeful it will take off,” Dr Jacobs said. “For example, when researchers submit an article for review they will be asked to register for Orcid, and once registered it will automatically be there the next time.”

Dr Terras added: “People should make sure they are checking out their online identity at least a couple of times a year, looking for ‘weeds’. Most of my colleagues actively garden their online digital identity.”

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