to BioTechniques free email alert service to receive content updates.
Take a Number
Douglas McCormick
BioTechniques, Vol. 46, No. 6, May 2009, p. 389
Full Text (PDF)

“I am not a number. I am a free man!” Patrick McGoohan's Number Six declared in The Prisoner, the 1960s BBC-TV series with a worldwide cult following.

We hate being pigeonholed. I, for one, bridle whenever I'm asked for identification papers or a Social Security number.

A conversation last week with Jim Pringle and Reynold Guida started us thinking once again about the tensions between privacy and identity. Pringle is vice president of development and Guida is director of product development for the ResearcherID program ( at the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). The system lets scientists sign up for a unique identifier and tie that identity to his or her ISI-indexed publications. It is one of several loosely confederated efforts to reduce what mathematicians would call “degeneracy” in the author dataset.

ResearcherID debuted in January 2009. So far, about 40,000 scientists have signed on, out of the several million worldwide researchers in social, life, and hard sciences who write the papers cataloged in ISI's databases. So far, Pringle and Guida say, researchers have accepted the service enthusiastically. Indeed, I am B-1924-2009, but don't get me wrong: I am both a number and a free man.

Why would someone so cantankerously anti-authoritarian register for yet one more number? It is, oddly enough, a matter of individuality: Our lives may be our own, but our names are given to us by others. If we're industrious or lucky, we earn a good name. If not, well ….

In any event, earning a good name requires getting credit for what you've done, and not getting blamed for what others have done. Our names are hardly unique identifiers: I shouldn't get credit for the papers on computer applications in psychology written by the University of Southern California's Douglas McCormick (who may or may not have written “Galton on spirituality, religion, and health,” for American Psychologist in 2004). And he probably would not want credit for my articles on toxic shock or expanded bed absorption (much less these BioTechniques editorials). And, as much as I would like to have owned the condominium purchased by venture capitalist and former iVillage chairman Douglas McCormick (his lawyer once sent me the closing documents in error), I do not want to be confused with the feckless South Jersey man whose child-support arrears once held up my own mortgage application.

And mine is not even a particularly common name.

So the folks at ISI have undertaken a two-pronged effort to cut through the ambiguities. First, they have combed through their massive databases to determine who, exactly, is who, by associating names with institutions and clusters of co-authors. The other prong is ResearcherID, which engages researchers to manage their own bibliographies.

But when—and if—the program grows, it will offer some potentially interesting social and research opportunities of its own: a LinkedIn or Facebook profile tied to a researcher's externally verified publications. It will make it possible to chart the signaling pathways of science in ways other fields do already: Mathematics has its Erdös Number, charting the number of co-authorship steps between one mathematician and the prolific Hungarian, Paul Erdös. Show business has its Bacon Number, the number of film credits between any given actor and Kevin Bacon.

There is utility as well as entertainment in the study of such networks, and at their best, they can help speed the process of collaboration, as well as help give proper credit where credit is due.