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I am currently finishing a paper, and I am writing the acknowledgements section.

There is a colleague with whom I have discussed several times about the question answered in the paper, who certainly spent some spare time thinking about it, and suggested some interesting ideas. However, none of these ideas actually turned out to be fruitful. While I appreciated their interest in this question, and things definitely might have turned out differently, the paper as it is has not actually benefited in any tangible way from my discussions with this person.

Do you think it is appropriate to thank them anyway? (And, if yes, with what formulation? just the standard "I would like to thank Prof. Smith for some interesting discussions", or something else?)

If it matters, the field is pure mathematics.

  • 4
    Related, but does not fully address the question about formulation: How to acknowledge unhelpful conversations as well as Acknowledge somebody whose advice is not relevant to the current manuscript anymore?. – Anyon Apr 27 '18 at 1:42
  • If one of his ideas had made it into your solution, your colleague would probably even be qualified for authorship. – lighthouse keeper Apr 27 '18 at 7:20
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    It would have to be a rather exceptional case for someone to be upset that you thanked them. – user9646 Apr 27 '18 at 9:28
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    I've thanked my SO for her delicious brownies on my articles. While not exactly directly research-related nor a common thing to do, it made sense to me 'cause she was spending her time to make me more comfortable, so I could work better. Acknowledgement isn't about repaying, is about showing gratitude. – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Apr 27 '18 at 11:40
  • @Ilia Smilga If you are looking for an academic objective reason, I feel one reason could be - she/he contributed to your paper by 1. Sharing their thoughts (intangible) which resulted in something tangible(results, though only partly contributed by them) - would you have thought about it had their contribution been absent. Like we have opportunity cost, think about opportunity contribution! 2. You got more time to focus on things that mattered because they helped you realize things that you can negate. If you look at it subjectively, I feel we should help those who help us! – Rahul Apr 27 '18 at 14:45
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The acknowledgement is not just for the results you get ultimately, but for the time and effort spent by your colleague in discussing your problem. Research is not deterministic, so you can rarely know beforehand what approach will work; you need to try different methods and then see what gives you the results. It's unfair to credit only those which ultimately worked. (Also, what didn't work now could work in a different scenario, with a different approach.)

To offer an experimental analogue, often we need to use several different instruments or techniques to get a result. This means we need to collaborate with different people for instruments and inputs; once they give time and access, they are acknowledged irrespective of the results.

As for how to acknowledge, the standard line is safe and respectful, unless you want to highlight a specific contribution.

43

Those discussions were “fruitful” in the sense that you cleared them off the list of avenues to pursue and were able to spend that time on other avenues.

So, yes acknowledge them.

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    Eliminating things that won't work is often the most valuable part of the process -- the earlier, the better. – Matthew Read Apr 27 '18 at 19:29
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Be generous in your praise of others! That person has inspired you, and adding someone in an acknowledgement costs you absolutely nothing. You accrue good karma if you show appreciation for the time others have offered you, and we can all use some good karma every once in a while!

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    I agree that it costs you nothing, but I find the idea of thanking others for the sake of karma slightly horrifying! I'd like to think we could be pleasant to others for its own sake! – Sparhawk Apr 28 '18 at 12:58
  • @Sparhawk: But both sides were: They had interesting and inspiring conversations about the topic at hand! – Wolfgang Bangerth Apr 30 '18 at 3:35
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Yes, it is perfectly acceptable, and I think a good idea, to thank people for interesting discussions that helped you along the way. This doesn't mean that they helped with a specific result in the paper, but that it was part of the longer term project. Here's an example from a Journal of Climate article by Hingray and Saïd:

We thank also Jerome Buzzi (Orsay, Paris), Douglas David Baptista De Souza (LTHE, Grenoble), and Jean-Philippe Vidal (Irstea, Lyon) for interesting discussions on this work as well as Michel Slivitzky for his enthusiastic appreciation of a former manuscript version.

And if it was part of a workshop and you don't want to have to acknowledge all thirty people you talked to individually, here's an example from the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (paper by Holtsag et al., 2013):

This paper benefited from discussions at the ECMWF-GABLS workshop in November 2011.

  • Great job in supplying real examples! – user153812 Apr 28 '18 at 18:31
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As has been mentioned by the others: yes, acknowledge them for the time and effort, and generally out of respect.

And, if yes, with what formulation?

Depending on the actual situation, and on how close you are to the professor (in hierarchy or familiarity), you can certainly pick a range of sentences. For example, if I were to read any of the following, I would not think any worse about the author at all.

  • "I would like to thank Prof. Smith for interesting discussions."
  • "I would like to thank Prof. Smith for his thought-provoking impulses regarding ..."
  • "I would like to thank Prof. Smith for being the 'devils advocate' regarding ..., hence keeping me on the right path."
  • "I would like to thank Prof. Smith for enduring my thoughts on ... and pointing out several dead ends I was in danger of getting stuck in."

Even a kind of high-brow tongue-in-cheek (as in #3) should certainly be acceptable.

  • I'd be a little wary of #3 maybe. In one breath you [sort of] dismiss Prof. Smith as a devil and call his opinions "the wrong path". Just sayin' ;) If he was actually only playing devil's advocate you'd probably just use one of the other formulations, and if he actually held a contrary opinion then there are probably better ways to describe how that went down. – Lightness Races with Monica Apr 30 '18 at 18:06
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit: I'm using it in the sence of In common parlance, the term devil's advocate describes someone who, given a certain point of view, takes a position he or she does not necessarily agree with (or simply an alternative position from the accepted norm), for the sake of debate or to explore the thought further. (Wikipedia), quite fitting and completely positive as far as I can tell. Whether it really is bad, the user should be able to decide - it's just a more relaxed, slightly tongue-in-cheek variation on the theme... – AnoE Apr 30 '18 at 19:14
  • Right, if that's what Prof. Smith was doing. But there's no indication in the question that this is so. And discarding someone's honest-to-god opinion as "they differ from mine so must just have been playing logic games" is liable to raise eyebrows when that person reads your paper... – Lightness Races with Monica Apr 30 '18 at 19:25
  • Err, yes, of course only if that was what he was doing, same for all other variants I gave. The spirit of the answer is that while much in papers is very earnest (i.e., the "science" part), one can certainly relax a bit on the intra-human stuff... – AnoE May 1 '18 at 12:15
  • The spirit of the answer is good and you have some good suggestions here. – Lightness Races with Monica May 1 '18 at 12:24

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