The case for including pronouns of authors in publications

This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave as a panelist at the 2021 Gender Summit (GS20 Latin America) [Plenary 7: Widening access to science knowledge and research publications, As part of the 2021 Gender Summit (GS20 Latin America) virtual event, Brasilia, Brazil. Other Panelists: Holly Falk-Krzesinski, Elsevier; Luisa Massarani, Scidev.net; Germana Barata, UNICAMP; Organisers: Alice Abreu, Dante Cid, Katemari Rosa]

Routinely, when I go outside, people stare at this body as something that does not fit. Some are confused; shifting between “Mr.” and “Ms.”, “sir” and “ma’am”, “he”, “she” … and in the worst instance: “friends” have called me “it” reducing my being to an object.

I use they/them and he/his pronouns. If you were talking about this essay, you might say, “Did you read that medium post by Ayush? Their essay is about including author pronouns in publications.” I prefer they/them/theirs as pronouns to refer to me because I do not fit neatly into either of the box labeled female or male. Pronouns, for me, are a language device to explore, experience, as well as contest settled meanings of gender; but also of reifying them in some ways. We live in this tension.

In this essay, I want to focus on a specific aspect of publications that disproportionately impacts transgender, non-binary, genderqueer, and gender-nonconforming scholars/authors.

I want to make the case that when we are publishing articles in journals or book chapters (in English), we should publish authors’ pronouns alongside their names. (I would argue that this could be extended also to the instances where names of people are mentioned in popular English-language magazines and articles (but curious to hear how folks in journalism are thinking about this)).

When discussing other scholars’ work, in writing and in conversations (in courses, at conferences, or informal spaces), we often refer to them, not just by their names but also by their pronouns. Just like you cannot look at someone’s face and say what pronouns they use, you cannot look at the name of someone and infer what pronouns they use.

Think of a name such as Sam, Robin, Alex, Gale — all US/European names that are used by both male and female scholars. How do you know if a “Sam” should be respectfully & appropriately referred to using “he” or “she” or they” or “ze”? Say, I am writing to a colleague: “Hey, Alex has been a prolific scholar on XYZ topic. You should read [her work? his work? her papers? his papers? their papers?]” What should I be saying?

But — that’s a small fraction of names right? What about a name like Patrick? The assumption is that someone named Patrick should always be referred to be “he”. And that is where we start seeing how this practice erases and makes invisible gender non-conforming folks who might be in places where these assumptions fail.

The gendering of names is also cultural. How can someone who is not from the part of the world where I was named really tell for sure whether Ayush should be referred to as she or he? Some of these cultural assumptions can break even from region to region within a single country.

In other words, guessing which pronouns to use to refer to someone based on their names is fraught with danger. Names and pronouns are both indexical, cannot be inferred, don’t fit into neat patterns, and yet our publication practices continue to force us to try to “guess” the pronouns of the authors.

It would be ridiculous to ask me to guess the name of the authors of a particular piece. It is equally ridiculous to ask me to guess the pronouns of the authors of a particular piece. And yet, the practice continues.

Most of these issues are easily resolved if author pronouns are included in the papers. Then we do not have to make these assumptions.

This is not just an issue of comfort, but one of equity: The assumption still for many people is to default to “he” for scholars. The “woke” ones would default to “she” if they don’t know. But almost everyone just erases non-binary and gender non-confirming scholars.

Just like I do not want someone to assume my name, I don’t want someone to assume the pronouns to refer to me. Most likely, when they assume, they will erase my non-binary self. (The patriarchy erases contributions of cis-women with gender neutral names too! But right now I want to centre non-binary perspectives.)

This is not just about making space for non binary folks, not just about representation, but also about rendering a tear in the assumed ideologies. The declaration of pronouns fractures (in one tiny way) the assumed alignment between assumed sex, gender and sexuality; making space, albeit a small gap, for the glorious messiness of sex, gender, and sexuality outside that heterosexist cis-sexist patriarchal hegemony.

This is not universally easy.

  1. Some non-binary folks can feel discomfort in having to share their pronouns. I empathise with this. I think the period of contending with pronouns (and gender) is long and complicated for those exploring gender beyond that assigned at birth. I have faced it myself. A form would ask me for my gender. And it has been uncomfortable at times. But so is the rest of the world that keeps reminding me that there is no place for bodies like me in it. That world is violent. It is violent when someone just assumes that the only options are she or he, female or male. Or forms that only offer me the choice of “Other” or “Do not wish to specify” — literally forcing me to other myself or act as if I am shamed of my self. For some, the moments of being asked about their pronouns can also be complicated. And so, keeping the issue optional is one way to approach this. Creating possibilities, not control. Creating options, not chains.
  2. There is the argument that pronouns is becoming a band-aid to avoid actually having a deeper conversation about gender (see this essay by Jen Manion, for example; and a response to that essay by Dean Spade). I agree that we need deeper conversations. I agree that we should not stop at pronouns. I disagree that we should not include pronouns specification as one small affirmative measure for non binary and gender nonconforming folks. (It will also have cascading benefits for folks who want to use the binary pronouns she or he.)

The bottom line is this: if we are using a language that has gendered pronouns, then communication in it either requires us to know what pronouns to use for a person. To not say is it to effectively say, “guess it” and when we make these guesses, the status quo always wins! But we can do this sensitively, without ignoring the struggles of those who are questioning and exploring.

What are some ways to include pronouns

The point I am trying to make is that if you are open to this, finding a space to include author pronouns, is not a difficult task. They are after all tiny little words, hardly taking up real estate on the page. But publishing these 1–2 syllables is made out to be difficult by journal leadership. And that’s the next point I want to make.

Challenges: Tactics used by editors to maintain status quo!

  1. The editors of a prominent journal in education research told me: “the practice is not prominent enough yet, and not understood enough outside North America, to implement it in the very short term.” — Well then do some work in making it understood! Is it easy to understand each journal’s specifics of page limits, formatting and referencing requirements, bibliographic formats, page charges, open and closed access policies, copyright issues? But for those logistics, so much effort is spent on design of journal pages, instructions, and communication with authors. However, the editors quail at the thought of mentioning pronouns?
  2. Issue of privacy: “we cannot store gender information”. Queer people have fought and are fighting continuously for visibility, to be seen and heard. Not all queer people, not at all moments in their life. But there isn’t any argument that we collectively want to be made invisible. And journals are happy to collect so much information. Gender information is collected by a zillion systems. But for some reason, adding the option of — not the requirement of — author’s pronouns becomes an issue of privacy?

All these excuses from editors need to be recognised for what they are: the transphobic discomfort of folks. Oftentimes, these “concerns” centre the discomfort of cis-people at being reminded that gender non-conforming and non-binary people exist, that gender non-conforming and non-binary scholars exist!

Two success stories:

  1. I am currently serving on the editorial board for the International Journal of Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace. When I brought up the issue of including author pronouns it was an easy to get a quick consensus from the editorial team. But the issue of privacy came up in storing this information as a field in the form that the authors fill out. Gender was deemed “too sensitive.” To get around, We have encouraged authors to include pronouns in bios and with affiliations. It is a smaller journal, with a simpler production process, and a less complicated hierarchy (as compared to major publication houses) and that has really helped us make this change.

There is a lot more that needs to be done in supporting gender non-conforming and non-binary scholars — supporting them emotionally, intellectually, financially, and support the diverse ways in which they want to pursue scholarship instead of shoehorning them into prior meanings and formats of scholarship. Including the option of author pronouns in publications is a small thing we can do right away.

Pronouns can change over time. Names can change over time. The conventions around pronouns do not translate easily across, different languages, different regions, different times …But we/you are smart folks! Figure this out and make the change!

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Ayush Gupta (they/them/theirs)

I do education research. Interested in emotions, ideology, epistemology, identity, values, ethics, and learning …