The Acknowledgments section of a paper might seem like a straightforward statement, but it has a remarkable number of potential pitfalls. I am often asked what should go in the Acknowledgments, if anything,
(1) at the time of first manuscript submission, and
(2) at the time of final (accepted) manuscript submission.
What has to be in the Acknowledgments in both cases?: a list of funding sources
What else should/could be in the Acknowledgments for the first submission?:
the names of other people who contributed directly to the research but who didn't contribute enough to be co-authors and who would be potential reviewers if they didn't have a conflict of interest
As an editor, I find it useful if manuscripts submitted for review contain this information, at least in terms of colleagues who could theoretically be asked to review it. When making decisions about the first submission, I don't care whether someone thanks technical staff or undergrads who helped with the research; in fact, it's not really appropriate at this stage. That kind of information should go in the Acknowledgments if the paper is accepted.
What else should be in the Acknowledgments in the final version of the paper?:
the names of non-coauthors who made a significant contribution (see above; also, this is the time/place to mention technical and other help from colleagues, students, and others)
the names of people who read the manuscript and provided critical comments
If for some reason a reviewer has identified him/herself to the author, either via the review or in some other way that indicates they want their identity to be known, they can be thanked in some non-obsequious, dignified way that acknowledges their efforts but does not imply that they agree with everything in the paper. In some cases a reviewer may identify him/herself even though they thought the paper should be rejected, and in that case he/she would not appreciate appearing to have given the paper their stamp of approval.
What if, as is most common, the reviewers are not known? Do you thank them, whoever they are, anyway? Or do you include a statement saying "We thank the n anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments" as a courtesy, to show that you appreciate the efforts of these people?
I am ambivalent about thanking anonymous people. A statement thanking anonymous reviewers is a way to acknowledge the efforts of those people out there in the world somewhere who spent time reading and making comments on the manuscript, but there isn't a lot of purpose to such a statement. Of course the manuscript was reviewed and if reviewers are not mentioned by name in the Acknowledgments, then clearly they were anonymous, as is the most common situation. Hence my ambivalence.
the names of people who did not contribute directly to the research but who influenced the research in some way
This is a tricky issue, with pitfalls involving what names to mention/not mention and how you word the statement. I think such statements are best avoided altogether unless there is some very compelling reason to thank someone, but I see these thank-yous all the time in papers. I have also seen examples in which the name of someone (say, for example, my own) has not been mentioned in a paper to which I provided a substantial amount of input.
And I have seen examples of Now I'm going to mention a bunch of famous people who are aware I exist. It is very easy to annoy people with this type of statement because you might mention people who don't want to be mentioned and you might exclude people who should have been included. You can take care of the first potential pitfall by asking people if they want to be acknowledged (and showing them exactly how you intend to word this), but it is more difficult to be proactive about the sins-of-omission situation.
The best way to avoid this type of problem is to keep the Acknowledgments short, simple and straightforward:
- funding source(s);
- non-coauthors who contributed in some substantive way to the research;
- reviewers if known and willing to be acknowledged;
Other FAQ re. Acknowledgments:
- Should the Acknowledgments be written in the first person or third person? It doesn't matter. Maybe a certain journal has a certain style you should follow. Otherwise, do what you prefer: I/We thank vs. The authors thank.
- If certain people provided comments/reviews on an earlier, rejected version of the manuscript, should they be thanked? Yes, but then you can refer to "an earlier version of the manuscript", which is academic code for "an earlier rejected version of the manuscript", though in theory you could be referring to an earlier draft that you sent around for comments. [If you do want to refer to an earlier unsubmitted version, then you may want to use the word "draft" rather than "version".]
This research was supported/partially supported by [list grants/PIs]. We thank our colleagues [list] who provided insight and expertise that greatly assisted the research, although they may not agree with all of the interpretations/conclusions of this paper.
This research was supported/partially supported by [list grants/PIs]. We thank [person X] for assistance with [a technique], and [person Z] for comments that greatly improved the manuscript.
This research was supported/partially supported by [list grants/PIs]. We thank famous persons X, Y, and Z for sharing their pearls of wisdom with us during the course of this research, and we thank 3 "anonymous" reviewers for their so-called insights. By the way, we are quite sure we know who you are. Student K helped with some technical stuff. We are also immensely grateful to persons Q, R, and S for their comments on an earlier version of the manuscript, although any errors are our own and should not tarnish the reputations of these esteemed persons.
6 years ago