No, you can’t acknowledge me in your paper without asking!

Most scientific papers have a brief acknowledgements section where people who helped in some small way with the study are mentioned. It used to be the place where the technicians, often female, who might have done all the work were credited. Now these people get authorship.

Perhaps the most usual kind of assistance is reading the paper after it is complete and making comments that improve the paper. A key suggestion or help with a technique might also get someone a mention in the acknowledgements section.

No unauthorized acknowledgements!


The acknowledgements section is also a place to credit funding sources.

Some journals require that everyone mentioned in the acknowledgements section authorize the mention. Even without that requirement, most authors check with the people they are going to mention.

So imagine my surprise when a friend told me I was acknowledged in a recent paper in Nature by Jonathan Pruitt and Charles Goodnight. I said no, it could not be. I had not even read that paper yet and certainly had not seen it before it was published. Moreover, I had seen both authors recently and neither one mentioned it.

But of course my friend was right. This is what the paper says: “J. E. Strassmann and W. P. Carson were invaluable in aiding in the submission of this paper.” What does that even mean? It kind of sounds like I have the secret password to Nature, or that I greased the wheels somehow. I didn’t. Am I being acknowledged for some random conversation about publishing, or for something in this blog? Is putting my name in the acknowledgements some indication that I had an opinion on the paper? I might, but not before I read it, or even know of its existence. I have no idea how W. P. Carson contributed either.

No unauthorized acknowledgements!

I don’t understand why anyone would do this, but it is a really bad idea. Check with the people you acknowledge and be sure they are all right with it. Only acknowledge people who actually have helped with the work.



About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Publishing your work, Scientific community, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to No, you can’t acknowledge me in your paper without asking!

  1. Charles Goodnight says:

    I have sent the following email to Dr. Strassmann


    I apologize. I am very sorry for this oversight. I am also very aware of the embarrassing acknowledgment. It has happened to me more than once.

    Charles Goodnight

  2. Mary Ellen says:

    Following. Let us know if you ever find out what his was about!

  3. Jonathan Pruitt says:

    Greetings Joan. I’m very sorry for not okaying the acknowledgement with you. The acknowledgement was intended and genuine. In my view, you contributed in a very valuable way. Still, this has been an excellent lesson.

  4. Jeremy Fox says:

    “most authors check with the people they’re going to mention”.

    Your experience is the opposite of mine Joan. Your post is the first time I’ve ever heard of anyone asking for permission to acknowledge someone, or expecting to be asked.

  5. Walter Carson says:

    My experience is very similar to Jeremy’s (greetings Jeremy it has been a long time). I was aware that I was going to be acknowledged in this Nature paper and I was really appreciative of it. I typically do not request permission from those I acknowledge in papers and in many cases if I did so I would have to track down numerous former field assistants, etc. If someone has helped with the research, paper, or the sharing of ideas, I acknowledge them. Perhaps if anything bothers me a tiny bit it is when I provide input or a “friend of court” review and the authors do not even mention it though this rarely seems to occur. Overall, I see acknowledgements as a very collegial part of the scientific enterprise.

    W.P. Carson

  6. Gavin says:

    It seems to me that if you read a manuscript and provide considerable feedback there is a tacit understanding that you will be mentioned in the acknowledgements. Whether this is right or wrong can be debated. If you have no tangible contribution to a paper and you are mentioned that is less forgivable and not defendable.

  7. I’ve been in a number of acknowledgement sections and have never been asked. Aside from my committee, I’ve always asked others (assistants, reviewers, etc.) and think that it is important to ask for their consent. Why? Because I’d like for others to ask me, and this conversation has, more times than not, ended up with somebody sharing that they were acknowledged in a work that they wished they weren’t. Thanks for the post.

  8. Pingback: Friday links: lego entomology, a blast from ecology’s past, France is bacon, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  9. Joachim says:

    “Here’s Elsevier’s guide for authors concerning the acklnowledgements:
    “This section must identify the source(s) of funding for the research. It should acknowledge any research assistants or others who provided help during the research (e.g., carrying out the literature review; producing, computerizing and analyzing the data; or providing language help, writing assistance or proof-reading the article, etc.) but who are not included among the authors. It should state where and when any earlier versions of the paper were presented (e.g. at a seminar or conference). Lastly, it should acknowledge the help of all individuals who have made a significant contribution to improving the paper (e.g. by offering comments or suggestions).”

    That would mean not acknowledging someone who has contributed to improving the paper, because that someone would rather not be mentioned, would conflict with Elsevier’s guide to authors. Also, it would be a blunder against ‘scientific correctness’ to acknowledge the contribution of peer reviewers because, being anonymous, the author cannot ask them.

    Maybe I’m just too naive thinking science is great and being acknowledged as having contributed to its progress must also be great. Unless, of course, someone regards a certain publication as the opposite of progress.

    • In the case of the problematic paper, I just sent a copy of a cover letter, did not look at the paper, so being acknowledged was bizarre. I’ve never come across this problem before, so maybe it is so rare as to not be an issue.

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