Who should be included in the acknowledgements section: A case study

Who should be included in the acknowledgements section: A case study

Case: An author approached the Publication Support Services department of Editage, seeking advice on a problem with his published paper. He had changed his university in the course of his research due to certain disagreements with his advisor about the way the study should be developed. However, since his advisor had guided him in the initial part of the study, the author had included his name in the acknowledgements section of his paper. “I thank Dr. XXX for his valuable inputs on my study during the initial phase of research.”

However, a few weeks after publication, the journal that had published the paper got a letter from the advisor saying that he did not want to be associated with this paper. He mentioned that he had not been informed about his name being added in the acknowledgements section. Additionally, he also pointed out that the reasons given for acknowledging him were factually incorrect as his inputs and guidance had not been applied to the paper. He wanted his name to be removed immediately.

The journal then wrote to the author seeking an explanation and asking him to resolve the dispute as soon as possible. The author was extremely worried and sought our advice on how to handle the situation.

Action: On questioning the author, we found that the author had two reasons behind acknowledging the advisor of the previous university:

1. He had felt that acknowledging the advisor might be a good way to resolve the initial differences which had led him to leave the university.

2. The advisor was an eminent figure in the field, and the author had felt that an association with him would be beneficial for his paper.

We explained to him that only people who have contributed to the study in a significant way should be acknowledged. In this case, the first reason was purely personal and did not justify the inclusion of the advisor’s name in the acknowledgements section. The second reason was unethical as the author was trying to bias readers by including the name of a famous person in his paper.

We also explained that before adding someone’s name in the Acknowledgements section, one should take his/her permission.  In this case, had the author sought permission of the advisor before the paper was published, the advisor would probably have declined, and this problem could have been averted.

As a remedial step, we helped the author draft a letter of apology to the offended advisor and mentioning that a corrigendum would be added to the published article stating that the name had been included by mistake. This would be done with immediate effect and the name would be removed from subsequent publications. Once the advisor replied to the email saying that he was fine with this arrangement, we helped the author draft a corrigendum explaining the error and the correction. The corrigendum was sent to the journal.

Summary: While the Acknowledgements section a way of thanking someone publicly for their contribution, help, or support, inclusion of someone’s name in the Acknowledgements section must be governed by certain principles:

  • Only people who have in some way helped, supported, or contributed to the study should be included. It is not ethical to include someone’s name in the Acknowledgements section for personal reasons (for instance, to appease someone, or to give some leverage to your manuscript by using the name of an eminent person).
  • Moreover, your reasons for acknowledging someone should be factually correct and not misleading in any way. If the extent or nature of their contribution cannot be very well defined, it is best to use generic phrases, such as “for their support,” “for their “guidance,” etc.
  • Finally, the concerned person’s approval should be taken before adding his/her name in the Acknowledgements section.

Many journals (in fact, most American journals) mention this clearly in their “instructions to authors” page. For instance, according to the instructions for authors provided by The Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), “Authors must obtain written permission to include the names of all individuals included in the Acknowledgements section, and the corresponding author must confirm that such permission has been obtained.”

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