MathOverflow is a question and answer site for professional mathematicians. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

It has always seemed to me that the Mathematical Community gives a high importance to the act of properly citing an author (Do not write Erdos! It's Erdős. Cauchy must be read as in French, not as in English...).

Hence, I thought that it might be useful to ask your opinion about how to cite correctly a foreign and/or complicated author name in the references. It seems that Bibtex handles only standard English style names well, and requires many workarounds for foreign names (see here). So it is better not to count on it too much.

Feel free to point out any suggestion, or even the problems you have come across when citing authors.

I'll start a list:

  • First, Middle, Last - Names. OK, I think there are no doubts, "John Horton Conway" should be cited as "J. H. Conway". Note the whitespaces after each period.

  • Spanish names: See the very good answer of Leo Alonso.

  • "Nobiliary" names (von, van der, etc.): See the answer of R. van Dobben de Bruyn.

  • Chinese names: Here I am often in trouble. I read that Chinese write their surname first and then their given name, but I think that in papers they are usually swapped. Also I heard that many Chinese have the same surname.



Some users voted to close this question for different reasons. I answered this question thinking that how to cite an author correctly is often a problem for mathematicians, so address it on MO could have been useful for many users. I can agreed to close this question, probably choosing zeno answer as the best, BUT before I would like to see more comments and opinions, especially about Asian names.


1) Many answered: "just look on MathSciNet". Unfortunately, MathSciNet is not free for everyone, so I think this is a quite unsatisfactory method.

2) The question is not about the transliteration of names, you can assume that the author already have a name written in a reasonable set of characters extending the Latin. The question is about the abbreviation of names in references.

share|cite|improve this question
I just download the bibtex from mathscinet. Job done. If you don't have access to mathscinet then probably the most sensible thing is to find not the article you're citing but a published paper which references the article you're citing, and copy that. This isn't a maths question -- it should be on academia.stackexchange . – eric Jan 5 at 14:07
Your remark about Chinese names is correct, and it is unfortunate. The names 'Wang', 'Chen', 'Zhang', 'Li' are the most common. Moreover, many people in China have a single syllable given name. What's even more vexing is that many distinct names in Chinese turn into the same name in English. For instance ‘汪维’ and ‘王伟’ are completely distinct, and no Chinese person will confuse the two... but both of them turn into 'Wang Wei' in pinyin (which is also how it's spelt in English) – Stanley Yao Xiao Jan 5 at 14:08
@eric: This is how errors in bibliographies propagate (and there are plenty). See . – darij grinberg Jan 5 at 14:14
@darijgrinberg I don't agree with your remark. Mathscinet has a much lower error rate than the average mathematician who doesn't spend hours doing bibliography searches. Also, this is how errors in bibilographies gets fixed: someone submits a correction to Mathscinet, once, and then it's there for everyone. :) – Federico Poloni Jan 5 at 16:03
Am I alone in wishing that names appeared also in their original languages, at least in full citations? Thus, we would have Wang, W. (王伟). And I might be Moskovich, D. (מוסקוביץ, ד.) This is wishful thinking/ dreaming, I know... – Daniel Moskovich Jan 6 at 18:43

MathSciNet is not free, but MRLookUp is free. So just look it up there and copy the bibtex.

share|cite|improve this answer
This is the best answer. If MathSciNet's database contains a citation that an author does not like (e.g. because of an issue with names) then this issue will be reported and fixed. Good on the AMS for making this resource free. – eric Jan 5 at 18:51
I use MathSciNet too, but occasionally (quite rarely) there are mistakes in the MathSciNet bibtex code. – Kimball Jan 5 at 19:44
So email the AMS and tell them about them. I'm sure they'll be grateful! I once emailed them because I caught a duplicate in MathSciNet and they seemed very pleased to be able to fix it. – eric Jan 5 at 19:58
@eric I do let them know of some mistakes, I'm just pointing out it's not 100% accurate. – Kimball Jan 5 at 21:53
There is also Zentralblatt which is more generous with their data towards non-subscribers than MathSciNet. – user9072 Jan 11 at 13:44

One thing that some people don't know is that in some languages, nobiliary particles¹ are neither capitalised (unless they appear at the beginning of the name; i.e. when initials are omitted)² nor alphabetised. In Dutch, for example, van, de, van der, etc are ignored for alphabetisation purposes. In Flemish names, however, the particles are usually both alphabetised and capitalised.

Example. (Dutch) B. L. van der Waerden should be under W, not V. Another format³ would be Waerden, B. L. van der.

Example. (German) C. L. F. von Lindemann should be under L, not V.

Example. (French) P. de Fermat should be under F, not D.

Example. (Flemish) M. Van den Bergh is under V! Note also the capitalisation of Van, but not den. This is presumably because the V occurs at the beginning of the name.

However, it seems that sometimes theorems named after people with such names may or may not (presumably depending on the country) drop the particle altogether: e.g. Fermat's little theorem, Lindemann–Weierstraß theorem. In (modern) Dutch, you would never do this; e.g. De Bruijn–Erdős theorem (note that De is capitalised, since the initials are omitted).

Remark. I find it entertaining to see that some authors are aware of these rules and others aren't (or does it depend on their BibTeX setup?). Next time you try to find a name of this form in the references, take a look at how the author alphabetised it.

Conclusion. Every country has different conventions, and it's very confusing. However, the strategy of following what the author uses herself is a safe one.

¹Their name is somewhat misleading: they do not always indicate nobility (e.g. in the Netherlands they don't).

²I believe that in German, the particle is omitted altogether if the surname is not preceded by the initials.

³This is the Dutch format. I don't know the conventions of other countries.

share|cite|improve this answer
Note that in German only common particles are ignored. In a German library you will find tom Dieck under t, and von zur Gathen under z . – Jan-Christoph Schlage-Puchta Jan 7 at 22:23
Thanks, I edited my question to add your answer in the list. – Fry Jan 8 at 10:10

For spaniards names.

A spaniard has a given name that sometimes is two (even more) like Pedro, Pablo, Juan Luis, María Eugenia, etc. The second given name is recognized because it is usually different from the usual family names. It is possible to have a family names like Carlos, but it is not quite frequent.

Additionally all the people has two family names, the first comes from the father's family and the second from mother's the family. Roughly this second family name works as the "middle initial" in some English speaking countries.

So, a mathematician named José Luis García Pérez should be cited like

García Pérez, José L.

In real life you might call him José, José Luis, or perhaps Pepe.

A really brief way and of course correct of referring to him is

García, J. L.

He might be tired of explaining this subtleties to editors and authors and write his name as José Luis García-Pérez, avoiding references to him as prof. Pérez instead of the correct prof. García. But this solution is not really compatible with the legal use stablished in Spain.

It happens that some people have complicated family names like Francisco Javier de la Vega Martínez, then the citation should be

Vega Martínez, Francisco J. de la

and the short version

Vega, F. de la

Another source of possible confusion is people with composite last names like, say Pedro Antonio García-Valcárcel Rodríguez. Then the composite works a single last name and most of the time its is not abbreviated. Perhaps in a desperate situation one might out an abbreviation for the first of the two because it is usually the more common. A citation should read

García-Valcárcel Rodríguez, Pedro A.

and the (extra) short version

G.-Valcárcel, P.

I think I am covering the several cases. Now for the extremely complicated example in the question: Juan Pablo Fernández de Calderón García-Iglesias. The name "Juan" is the first given name, thus the main one, "Pablo" is the second given name, "Fernández de Calderón" is the first last name, so the main one and "García-Iglesias" is a composite second last name. The right way of citation:

Fernández de Calderón García-Iglesias, Juan P.

a short version

Fernández de Calderón, J.

And if you are really out of space the following

Fdez. de Calderón, J.

would be possible. There are other variants but I think I've covered the key points.

share|cite|improve this answer
Thank you a lot Leo Alonso, I edited my question as the case of Spanish names has been answered by you. – Fry Jan 8 at 10:04
My pleasure. I have had a lot of problems when some people cites my papers, and send them to wikipedia's page Spanish naming conventions. Now I have an alternate source. – Leo Alonso Jan 8 at 12:26

EDIT. As Dirk pointed, when you cite a paper (written in Latin font) you always write the author's name exactly as it is written in the paper.

When you cite a paper which is written in some other alphabet, the following are two reasonable approaches to this that I know: 1. To follow Mathscinet. 2. If an author ever wrote a paper using Latin font, write his name as he did himself.

Of course these approaches give the same result in most cases, but the second is especially important when you cite old authors who are not in Mathscinet, for example, Chebychev. (There was a nice joke in one combinatorics book: Problem. How many ways are there to spell Tschebyschev in English?).

It happens that the same author (or the translator) wrote his name with different spellings in different papers in English. In this case, when you cite his paper, just follow the spelling in the paper that you cite.

EDIT. Here is a little example which shows how good the Mathscinet author database is. American mathematician D. F. Shea once published a paper in a Ukrainian journal, in Russian, and this paper was later translated to English. The translator of the paper transliterated his name from Russian as "Shia". Nevertheless Mathscinet determined his identity correctly.

EDIT2. There is a remarkable book on the subject of Chebycheff's names (first and last), and many other related important subjects:

The Thread: A Mathematical Yarn Paperback by Philip J. Davis , 1989.

Strongly recommended. However, the author is not a native Russian speaker, so he does not discuss such advanced topics as the one in @Fedor Pertov comment.

share|cite|improve this answer
I think only the last sentence gives the correct approach (unless you are D. Knuth). – Dirk Jan 5 at 15:07
@Fry Mathscinet is not free, but mref is, and has the same results with a slightly more inconvenient search interface. – Federico Poloni Jan 5 at 17:50
The joke I've heard is that Chebyshev's Inequality states that no two mathematicians will spell his name the same way. – Timothy Chow Jan 5 at 18:57
@Timothy Chow: you will be probably surprised to learn that even among the Russian speakers there is no agreement how to spell his name in Russian and even how to pronounce it. (Russian pronounciation somewhat changed since then). – Alexandre Eremenko Jan 6 at 4:31
In Russian he is spelled Чебышев (not Чебышёв) and pronounced as Чебышёв (not Чебышев). Simple as that. – Fedor Petrov Jan 7 at 18:42

Two somewhat similar points:

1) When it comes to choosing a correct spelling, I disagree with Alexandre Eremenko that one should follow the spelling in the cited paper. I think one should always use the spelling under which the person is best known.

Let's say you are citing several papers by Erdős, some with a non-standard spelling (MathSciNet also lists Erdös, Erdós, Erdőš, etc.) Are you going to have several different spelling of the same author? Only in the references or in the main body of the paper as well? This only creates a confusion and serves no clear purpose (MSN merges all spellings anyway).

Some Russian names gives more unfortunate examples. Are you going to cite Oleinik or Oleĭnik? Gelfand or Gel'fand? The latter spelling is standard in both cases, but few non-Russian speakers would know how to pronounce the names in that case - these extra symbols again create an unnecessary confusion.

2) For Chinese and other foreign names - again, the golden rule is to use the name they are best known. I recommend reading this Wikipedia guide which I found to be well thought out and quite helpful.

share|cite|improve this answer
Thing is that "best known" is subjective… Or do you mean "best known to yourself"? An example from outside academia: Is is T.C. Boyle, T. Coraghessan Boyle or Tom Coraghessan Boyle? – Dirk Jan 5 at 15:22
Not really. I recommend google test. Alternatively, MathSciNet has a preferred spelling, listing all other spellings in the author profile under "Published as" – Igor Pak Jan 5 at 15:24
For Stanley J. Osher your MathSciNet and Google do not agree for me (let alone that googling is itself subjective): MathSciNet suggests "Stanley J. Osher" while "S. Osher" produces most Google hits for me ("Stanley Osher" is second place and "S. J. Osher" is third place). Another nice try is "Jeffrey C. Lagarias"… – Dirk Jan 5 at 15:55
I remember an epic thread in Russian blogs on how to call Shiing-Shen Chern ("American" Черн, most common, or "Chinese" Чжень, used in old Russian texts, before he came to U.S.) There were hundreds of comments, but no agreement. – Fedor Petrov Jan 5 at 16:09
I strongly object. After all what is the purpose of the reference list? Is not that for the reader to find the cited paper? You will facilitate the task by writing the author's name EXACTLY as written in the paper. And YES, sometimes one has to cite the same author with different spellings. This is actually very common with names written in Cyrilic. – Alexandre Eremenko Jan 5 at 18:00

There is also the singular case of Yahya ould Hamidoune, the Mauritanian mathematician. In fact, ould is not a name: it just means 'the son of'. It is used in the same spirit of the Italian patronyms de or de' (as in Bruno de Finetti or Lorenzo de' Medici), so it should be treated in the very same way. However, most of Hamidoune's papers are cited (or even signed by Hamidoune himself!) as if 'Yahya' and 'ould' were two first names, which is why you will typically read 'H. O. Hamidoune' or 'Hamidoune, H. O.' in bibliographies. (In still other cases, matters are just cut short by dropping the 'ould'.)

In an ideal world, I think the mistake (if you also take it as such) should be definitely fixed: Hamidoune's papers would be indexed as 'H. ould Hamidoune' or 'ould Hamidoune, H.' (depending on the journal style), and ordered by making reference only to 'Hamidoune' (if they have to be ordered alphabetically). But I'm urged to be realistic: this won't happen for many reasons.

share|cite|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.