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I know that it is general practice to include a footnote on papers acknowledging research assistants who have contributed to the project. I am wondering, however, if any guidelines or accepted practices exist for how to determine which assistants should be acknowledged where. In general, since it is low cost to acknowledge assistants, it makes sense to be pretty generous in erring on the side of acknowledging. But, in the interests of acknowledgments being honest reflections of those who contributed to the project, what about some of these particular cases?

  • Research assistant (RA) is hired. Does a small amount of work, but not enough to be useful, and then quits.
  • RA works hard on project, but is very poor at communicating. As a result, RA goes incommunicado for a while, comes back at the end of the period having put together a work product that is of zero use to the project.
  • Open-ended research project begins. At start of the project, it is not clear which avenues of research / aspects of the project will turn in to productive papers and which will not. RA does good work on an avenue of research that turns out to be a dead end. Another avenue of research is more successful and results in a paper. RA contributed nothing directly to the successful avenue, but did contribute to the larger open-ended project.
  • The usefulness of failure is easy to underestimate. Failed research directions are some of the most important contributions to science there are. In your third case this is probably the sort of project that should begin with a discussion of authorship criteria and expectations. I believe in many cases and fields, the third situation would warrant the RA being offered co-authorship. Indeed, the answer to this question (especially where authorship is concerned) depends heavily on the field, and you should seek opinions from your colleagues therein. – zibadawa timmy Jan 31 '18 at 1:44
  • Thanks @zibadawatimmy for the comment. In this case the question of co-authorship is unambiguous. The RAs performed very specific tasks that were explicitly defined for them. They exercised no significant creative choice in designing the research or its implementation, and worked as part of a team of more than 20 RAs on the whole project. The fact that they happened to work on a failed project reasonably qualifies them for credit, but certainly doesn't give them special consideration for co-authorship here as compared to those RAs who worked on successful portions of the project. – User2431583210 Jan 31 '18 at 2:46
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I think it's best to err in the direction of being generous with attribution. Firstly because it's hard to be accurate about how important someone was (which both applies to you potentially underestimating your contribution, or the RA overestimating their contribution) which can lead to hard feelings. And second because it's just a few words and the power to make someone feel good about their contribution outweighs the cost of those words.

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Research assistant (RA) is hired. Does a small amount of work, but not enough to be useful, and then quits.

Whether someone is still employed (by you) is not relevant. Ignore this fact.

RA works hard on project, but is very poor at communicating. As a result, RA goes incommunicado for a while, comes back at the end of the period having put together a work product that is of zero use to the project.

The amount of effort is irrelevant as well. If the work was indeed not helpful to the project at all, you don't need to acknowledge this person. However, consider that by participating in discussions this person may still have contributed immaterial value. If you have a place for general acknowledgements (not related to any particular part of the content), you could mention this person here.

Open-ended research project begins. At start of the project, it is not clear which avenues of research / aspects of the project will turn in to productive papers and which will not. RA does good work on an avenue of research that turns out to be a dead end. Another avenue of research is more successful and results in a paper. RA contributed nothing directly to the successful avenue, but did contribute to the larger open-ended project.

This is similar to the previous case. This still person is still likely to have contributed immaterial value to the project that did result in a paper.

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