Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Authors Gratefully Acknowledge

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;
- pets.

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".]

Some examples:

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.


Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

"We're also grateful to Dr N, who rewrote our weaksauce cover letter to grab the attention of the editors at this snooty journal. And Dr N should know, because he's weaseled many a strange paper into these pages.

"And finally, we'd like to thank our editor, whose stamina in defending our manuscript's initial rejection wore out after the eighth phone call. You're the best."

Anonymous said...

you might mention people who don't want to be mentioned

I think this whole issue falls in importance, but for the idea that someone might be offended by being mentioned. Certainly I would not want something false to be said about me, but otherwise I cannot fathom being unwilling to be thanked in a paper. This is the reason that I thank everyone who might have remotely contributed in any way, including giving me moral support at the bar while I knocked back beer and complained about the paper. I am far more worried about leaving someone out than including too many people.

Do you really believe there are people out there who will take serious issue with being thanked in a paper even if they didn't do much (as long as the thanks don't include fabrications)? More concretely, in the particular scenario you have set up, do you really think famous researchers spend time worrying that their reputations are impugned by the appearance of their name in the Acknowledgments section of sub-standard papers? I would guess no, but maybe if I were famous I would change my tune.

Anonymous said...

In the biosciences, it is also very important to thank other people who have provided you with reagents.

Alyssa said...

Interesting - I really hate the idea of having to thank reviewers. I've always seen that as a sucking-up kind of thing to do and don't really understand why it is done.

I do have a question for you: what if you acquired some data through someone that you otherwise wouldn't have been able to get? Would they be co-authors, or would you put them in the acknowledgment section?

Anonymous said...

I generally do not thank anonymous reviewers who do the usual careful job, but do not go above and beyond the call of duty. On occasion, however, the anonymous reviewers identify a major flaw that can be corrected, or suggest a non-obvious experiment that turns out to be critical. In this case, I do thank them.

PS why bother to have two different sets of acknowledgments. I agree that its not critical to thank everyone till the final version, but why not do all the work up front?

Mark P

madscientist said...

I think that you may have forgotten some very important people here:

The authors would like to thank [funding agency / grant number /etc] for their funding of this research. In addition, the exact same version of this paper was rejected by [crappy journal b]. We would like to thank the editor of [crappy journal b] for their inept handling of the situation and the two anonymous reviewers from said journal for ripping the authors a new place to defecate from. The authors are much more grateful to the reviewers from this wonderful journal, who got it right!

Or not.... Sometimes you wish that you could make these types of comments, but then you probably just come across looking like a horse's back-end.

Anonymous said...

PS I have also acknowledged the Lindt chocolate company which greatly enhanced my graduate work

Mark P

John Vidale said...

I'd favor making the acknowledgments accurate at the start.

If they change as the paper is accepted (aside from thanking referees), people suspect some misdirection to either reallocate credit or gaming the system to try to avoid unwanted referees, and they are often right.

Kevin said...

Other than the funding agencies, does anyone care about the acknowledgments? Co-authorship matters, but acknowledgments are worthless.

I do occasionally acknowledge people who contributed to a paper in an indirect way (conversation in the hall, or having written some software that got re-used for a different purpose), but most of the time I try to include any contributor worth acknowledging as a co-author. Most of my papers end up with 2-4 authors, though one (for which I was a relatively minor contributor) had 14.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post -- the etiquette of acknowledgements has long been a source of mystery to me and it seems all too easy to commit a faux pas. Your comments are quite helpful.

Anonymous said...

I, for one, am offended when I am acknowledged without my permission. It has happened several times in which I have had no connection to the work. I am offended because I suspect the authors acknowledge me in order to avoid having me as a reviewer. This fear seems real, since FSP says that she looks at acknowledgements when considering reviewers...

Alicia M Prater, PhD said...

I have run into editing situations where the author wrote a dedication as opposed to an acknowledgments section. One was all about how wonderful and supportive their children and husband are. I felt horrible deleting it, but the journal they were submitting to was very specific about that section including funding sources only.I left them a note about the difference between dedications and acknowledgments and encouraged them to discuss it with the editor of the journal if they felt strongly about including it, though I feel it is highly inappropriate for journal articles to include dedications. We want to read the work, not hear about the researchers' social lives! I understand though that the work is emotionally charged for some, particularly if it was a long process to get the article to the point of submission, and that comes out in that section in awkward ways.

As for anonymous "thank you"s, there are a number of people who touch the manuscript that most authors don't ever know about, so if there are anon thanks they would miss some of the most invaluable people in getting the work to print.

Anonymous said...

I saw a classic acknowledgments section a while back, by Dr BigWeirdTheory, the paper was experimental and single authored. The section read:
Thank you to Cindy Technician who collected the data and Mary Postdoc* who prepared the manuscript.

In other words, these two people did the work but got no authorship.

*I'm assuming they must have been at that level, at least, to have written the paper. It is possible that Dr BWT was so doddery that she couldn't use a computer, so Cindy did the typing at Dr BWT's dictation.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I never would have thought to thank the reviewers of the manuscript, but that might be largely due to the fact that I was too busy jamming 20 gauge needles into their voodoo dolls.

I kid.

My favorite acknowledgments are those that contain dedications to deceased scientists. It's almost as fun as reading the obituaries in C&E News.

Anonymous said...

How about acknowledging the other graduate student in your group, who went through 2-3 rough draft iterations of your manuscript and laboriously corrected the grammar, numbering mistakes, formulas and some layout, and made suggestions as to what should be changed and what works/doesn't. For three of your papers.

Grumble, grumble... Well, thanks for at least saying 'thank you' in the last email message after I sent back the third iteration of the paper just before the final submission stage.

Are you reading this boss-man? Where the hell is my acknowledgment?

Ms.PhD said...

I tend to agree with the anon grad student who would like a little thanks for editing. I've read a lot of manuscripts, and very few people have read mine. If there's no give-and-take, there should be a little give-back once in a while.

In my field I think there is some attention paid to who is "collegial" about helping others. And it helps to have a written record of it for the whole world to see.

I also agree with the person who said the Acks section should not be altered before, during or after final acceptance of the manuscript. That kind of shit is usually a red flag in my experience.

I thank my students and relevant colleagues up front in the first submitted version, and I keep it that way as long as the journals will let me.

And I would like some of those editor & reviewer voodoo dolls, not to mention one that looks like my advisor!

Anonymous said...

After I anonymously refereed a paper, the authors added a statement to the effect "We thank the referee for his helpful comments."

Since I'm a woman, I can assume that they don't know who refereed their paper!

Anonymous said...

If you work on someone's published paper and are NOT acknowledged (and feel hurt by this), what recourse do you have? I personally think it shows a lack of professional integrity to fail to acknowledge someone who has made a contribution to a paper.

Vadim said...

What about personal and emotional acknowledgments like "I wish to thank my dear girlfriend N.N. for the infinite inspiration that she has given me during the time of the work"? These are certainly present in books, but what about scientific publications?