I completed a postdoctoral period in China, where I had a number of issues with the administration and supervisor. In short, I felt exploited in many ways, from payment & funding restrictions to being constantly asked to provide unfair "favours" and contributions.

During my stay I was constantly asked for language revisions and suggestions on manuscripts. I am a critical person, and local culture is refractory to open criticism. Still, whilst my suggestions were generally ignored and apparently made others uneasy, lab mates would frequently ask for my opinion on manuscripts under preparation. They usually acknowledged my contributions in the acknowledgments section. Why they would ask for my suggestions when they didn't seem to like them always puzzled me.

However, since my departure they have published two papers I have never seen, acknowledging me for suggestions. Awkwardly enough, these are papers directly within my area of expertise that were surely under preparation in my presence, first-authored by close colleagues. (Meaning they probably refrained from mentioning the projects around me, at least in English).

Why would someone acknowledge a nonexistent contribution from a close colleague? Especially on a project that was apparently kept secret? It feels very awkward.

UPDATE: To clarify a key point lifted by all respondents, I am adding the exact text (specific info edited out) from the latest of them:

We thank Dr. XXX, YYY, United States; and Dr. [Scientist], ZZZ, China, for critical reviews of this manuscript.

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    So just to get it straight. You moved to a new country, new lab, expected everyone to adapt to your personality and culture, made people uncomfortable in the process, and they still asked for your help and thanked you for it. And now you're complaining that they are thanking you? – user9646 Jun 27 '18 at 12:48
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    @NajibIdrissi sorry, but maybe my question wasn't clear: I was acknowledged for contributions on projects I never heard of. Not complaining; I am puzzled. (In fact the first author is somebody I regard as a friend.) – Scientist Jun 27 '18 at 12:51
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    Is the project completely unrelated to any possible discussion you have ever had with these people...? – user9646 Jun 27 '18 at 12:56
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    So when are you going to ask the author/friend this question? – Jim Jun 27 '18 at 19:59
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    A student may have found the comments unpleasant, but told their supervisor they asked you for feedback. They might be keeping up the appearance of getting your feedback, even when they didn't. – Axeman Aug 1 '18 at 15:09

I see two possible reasons for their behaviour. Others options are possible.

  1. They are using your name to reduce the chances of desk-rejection. I have heard that a well-known expert in the acknowledgements can be seen as a positive point for some editors.
  2. They copy-paste the acknowledgements of a previous manuscript and forgot to delete you.
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    Hi, I have added the latest Acks text to my question. It is not similar to any of the other manuscripts where they have thanked me for suggestions. This enforces your point 1 ... and my suspicion that they might be avoiding getting me as a reviewer. – Scientist Jun 27 '18 at 13:50
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    I did not think about that, but yes, putting you in the acknowledgement is a good way not to have you as a reviewer. Although because you collaborate with them, you should be excluded as a reviewer automatically. – Emilie Jun 27 '18 at 15:01
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    They told me of details around a lot of peer review manipulation going on there. In short their manuscripts end up being reviewed by themselves, via friendly (compatriot) editors and peers. I told them I am one nasty reviewer, thus I think they are finding ways around me then. – Scientist Jun 27 '18 at 15:37
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    I wonder what the authors would say or do if the OP asked them specifically and explicitly to remove the OP from the acknowledgments. – Fixed Point Jun 27 '18 at 16:13
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    option 2 was what came to my mind instantly... – OBu Jun 27 '18 at 16:29

A possibility which have not been mentioned: If you are in the acknowledgements section, you will not be asked to review a paper. Especially within narrow sub-fields, this can actually mean something.

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    This is exactly my suspicion from beginning as they kept asking me to review. – Scientist Jun 27 '18 at 17:54
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    You can ask to be removed from the acknowledgements. I have done so once, in a case where I suspected exactly this. – nabla Jun 27 '18 at 20:01
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    This is very interesting. I had never heard of this peer-review manipulation stunt. I will probably not ask to have it removed but expose it openly (e.g. PubPeer) once I am done with other issues with these people. – Scientist Jun 27 '18 at 20:51

Another option I see is that they simply discussed something with you while you were still there, and they got something useful out of it that made its way into the paper. And moreover while his happened they didn't explicitly tell you "our current discussion is related to this specific project, by continuing to discuss with us you agree to have your name in the acknowledgements section of the paper, please sign this affidavit stating that you understand".

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    This was my first thought. There have been plenty of occasions when others have helped me in my research without their realizing that they did so. Just because OP didn't recall what might have been an off-hand remark on a seemingly tangential issue doesn't mean that such a thing never occurred or that it doesn't merit an acknowledgment. – John Coleman Jun 27 '18 at 13:31
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    @JohnColeman I have added an excerpt to the question -- they specifically thanked me for critical input on a manuscript I never read. My internal suspicion is that this might be some strategy to avoid a specific reviewer I never heard of before. – Scientist Jun 27 '18 at 14:16
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    @Scientist That definitely casts a different light on the situation. After the clarification, this answer doesn't apply to your situation. I still think that this answer adds something of value regarding the question as contained in the title (which is a pretty good title for the question). It might help others who search for the question in the future, so I don't regret my upvote and would like to see this answer kept in its present form. – John Coleman Jun 27 '18 at 16:07
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    @KonradRudolph I don't think so -- the actual phrasing is "critical reviews of the manuscript" even if "manuscript" could be a metonymy for the overall research I don't see how "critical review" can mean an informal conversation which is not directly related to the actual manuscript. – John Coleman Jun 28 '18 at 16:32
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    @JohnColeman Most acknowledgements read very generically. I would’t be at all surprised if “review of the manuscript” were used to describe any and all contribution to the project. Of course my hypothesis is trivially testable: if other people got acknowledged using different wording, I’m wrong. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 28 '18 at 16:35

It's worth noting that I've heard many times of companies and schools in China lying and pretending to employ or work with western professionals to make their group look good during tours and advertisements.

Perhaps the motivation was for appearances.

If you add

Dr. XXX, YYY,United States

to the end of the manuscript then I suspect it makes it look more professional/important to other people in China.

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    I was there for two years. I can attest that this what you heard is a typical behaviour. It is called "face culture". Though XXX here is a Chinese name, in fact showing some US affiliation is widely praised in China. My last name looks kinda "cool" as many of them remarked, so perhaps they are partially just adding face to papers. – Scientist Jun 27 '18 at 16:51
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    For reference, this wouldn't be appropriate as a comment because it does actually attempt to answer the question. – V2Blast Jun 27 '18 at 17:08
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    There was a paper submitted to a conference with my name as lead author. My only contribution to the paper was that I asked that my name be removed from the paper - which was obviously ignored. The paper was pure garbage. I am not a particularly famous researcher. I think it is 100% face. – emory Jun 27 '18 at 20:21
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    @emory Did this take place in China as well? The same PI also submitted a conference presentation with my name (3rd author) on it without letting me know. However it was a project I'd contributed on, but withdrew from later (before the conference) when I was sure of fowl play around the data. – Scientist Jun 27 '18 at 20:54
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    yes, in china. I won't complain about it b/c I was compensated for my (non) contribution. – emory Jun 28 '18 at 1:39

During my stay I was constantly asked for language revisions and suggestions on manuscripts. I am a critical person, and local culture is refractory to open criticism. Still, whilst my suggestions were generally ignored and apparently made others uneasy, lab mates would frequently ask for my opinion on manuscripts under preparation. They usually acknowledged my contributions in the acknowledgments section. Why they would ask for my suggestions when they didn't seem to like them always puzzled me.

Perhaps they found your honest criticism valuable, even if it wasn't culturally appropriate to agree with it. Thanking you in the acknowledgements sounds like a low-key way to show their honestly felt appreciation that they were't comfortable showing in person. Maybe you had a lasting effect on them that continued on into work you didn't directly review.

  • Sounds inspiring but I did not get that impression -- usually non-linguistic suggestions were not incorporated. And the published manuscripts have issues that seem glaring to me that I am sure they know I'd disapprove of (mainly regarding statistics). – Scientist Jun 27 '18 at 17:56

I regularly watch this youtube channel of this South African guy who has lived in China for the past 10 years (SerpentZa). One of the phenomenon he has exhibited is Chinese companies and schools like to enhance the prestige of their organization by having Western people pretend to be American experts who have graciously accepted and invitation to speak at a function. I think they are namedropping you for similar reasons.

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    A "White Monkey Job", this is locally called. I am a big fan of his channel as well, and his videos have helped me a lot understand the local culture. I sought him for a chat while I was at the peak of my issues there but unfortunately he never replied. I am not American but perhaps I may look and sound like one to many of them, and also my family name is English. – Scientist Jun 27 '18 at 19:36

Since we don't know the text of the acknowledgements, I'm assuming it was a general 'for valuable suggestions' type acknowledgement, not 'for suggestions towards making this manuscript more readable', the latter being specifically for language suggestions.

In that case, I speculate that they may want to avoid later contradiction/opposition from you. As you are well-known in the field of the paper, and have had some less-than-great experiences with them, they may be insuring themselves against possible backlash from you. Of course this is not foolproof, but they may hope that you'd turn a blind eye if acknowledged.

  • That is possible but I'd think acknowledging someone for something inexistent would open a (public) breach instead of offering any protection. But I am sure my logic is different from theirs, thus it is hard for me to understand. It is worth adding here that these manuscripts are nothing "groundbreaking", nor paradigm-shifting nor of the sort that would attract special attention or enquiries. I would never comment on them in particular... otherwise. – Scientist Jun 27 '18 at 13:35
  • Hi, I have added the excerpt from their latest, and they specifically thank me for suggestions on the manuscript. – Scientist Jun 27 '18 at 13:54
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    Thanks for adding that information. I didn't mean ground-breaking work, rather some overstated claim with little proof, or something that is not fully substantiated but made to look perfect. Those sort of grey areas that you, as an expert may point out, having worked with them and possibly being aware of such tendencies. – user153812 Jun 27 '18 at 15:00
  • Being too frank I do not think their results on the quoted manuscript are real. Especially because I never heard or saw of the project happening, and it looks like a lot of trouble to have coordinated. The raw data being all numeric, it may have easily been tampered with. But one cannot point that out without any hard evidence. – Scientist Jun 27 '18 at 15:33

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