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I am the first author of a paper that we want to submit (Neuroscience). The journal requirement states that the authors should seek permission from any person that they have acknowledged in the paper. Quoted:

Authors should obtain permission to acknowledge from all those mentioned in the Acknowledgements section.

There is a professor from a different university that had given us some advice on how to use their toolbox and we have mentioned his name in the acknowledgments. I have emailed that professor twice asking permission to acknowledge him but have not heard from him (the second email was roughly 10 days after the first). At this stage, it doesn't look like I will receive a reply. I know that the professor is active on Twitter so I am guessing he has seen the email but not replied.

What can I do at this stage? The journal does not require any "proof" of permission to be uploaded. I really don't want to delay the submission of the paper.

1) Would it be ethical to submit this paper even though I have not received permission from the person being acknowledged?

2) What are my options at this stage? Upload the paper but mention that I did not receive a reply in the cover letter (an editor might reject the paper as it does not then meet the journal guidelines)?

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    Can you ask the journal? Explain the situation and ask for guidance? – user111388 Apr 3 at 9:02
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    Why don't you ask the professor on Twitter? – Joel Reyes Noche Apr 3 at 9:03
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    @JoelReyesNoche I think that would be borderline "stalky" behaviour and wouldn't be professional – stuckstat Apr 3 at 9:07
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    Not sure that Twitter use correlates perfectly with reading every email in your inbox and remembering to respond. – Azor Ahai -- he him Apr 3 at 16:46
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    If I were you, I would choose a different journal. In what world does it make sense to obtain permission for acknowledging someone? Maybe you could change your paper to say "The authors would have acknowledged professor X for assistance Y, but because of journal policy we are unable to do so." – Curt F. Apr 4 at 1:45
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I would submit the paper to get the process started, but send a note to the editor that Prof. X has not yet given permission to be named, though you have tried to contact him. The editor will make a decision. Perhaps the paper will be returned to you. Perhaps the decision to publish will be deferred, but review begun. Perhaps the editor will ask the person if they will permit. There are a lot of possibilities.

But in April 2020 the world of academia is in chaos due to a worldwide pandemic. Lots of things that used to take a while, now take a very long time. And some people are dealing with illness, their own or that of family members. Don't expect communication to be quick at the present time.

You could also explain this to the professor yourself, that you have submitted, provisionally, but will respect his decision. You can always modify the ack later if needed. The review process will take plenty of time.

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    I agree with your suggestion on submitting the paper. I specially like the last part of letting the professor know that their decision will be respected. Like you said, review will take time and one can always modify acknowledgement at a later stage – stuckstat Apr 3 at 12:43
  • And keep the editor updated if you hear from the person, of course. Even a note that the ack section will need revision. – Buffy Apr 3 at 12:49
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    @JoelReyesNoche, yes, thanks. Fixed. The spell corrector here does a lousy job sometimes. – Buffy Apr 3 at 14:31
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Logically, I think the wording from the journal, "obtain permission to acknowledge from all those mentioned" means that a non-response is a lack of permission. And even with all that's going on, two emails over 10 days seems to me to be a reasonable, good-faith attempt to gain permission.

Since this relates to a software toolkit, however, the solution seems fairly straight-forward to me. Simply acknowledge the toolkit directly, and/or "the creator of the toolkit".

Or better yet, cite it as software used, if your field uses those sorts of citations.

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  • "...even with all that's going on..." Yeah, unless he's sick. But +1. Especially good advice, regarding citing the software. – Mike Apr 4 at 18:51
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Is this impending submission only the first stage in a long process that will include, for example, peer review? If so, there is no need to have secured the professor's permission at this point; it's just necessary that it be done sufficiently before publication, whenever that may be. And then, in the unlikely event you fail to get permission, you can strike that acknowledgement from the paper prior to publishing.

There is no need to hold up the submission while awaiting that permission.

Separate from that, if you have a contact in your circle who is a respected colleague of that professor, you could use that person as an intermediary to contact and obtain a rapid response from that professor. But it's not worth calling in favors to do that.

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Put the paper into the process. You can always cut the Professor X part up through galley proofs if you don't hear back by then.

Also call his work (and if you have it home/cell) number, during working hours. Of course, there's the whole SARS-CoV-2 thing going on, but you still want to do all channels. And leave voice mails. (This is a "duh" type of thing, but amazing how many young people don't make telephone calls or knock on doors.)

Note, it is not necessary or expected to show the guy the paper. And if he is busy, he may even interpret an attached manuscript as someone trying to give him work. But of course, if he asks for it, then give him a courtesy copy. (But remember it is still YOUR paper, your decisions, don't borrow a gatekeeper you don't need.)

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The question specified that the journal does not only stipulate the authors "seeks" permission (which would imply asking is enough), but "obtains" permission.

If you have not obtained the permission you should treat that fact as a refusal to give you permission.

If somebody does not permit acknowledging them, indicate the fact that you received their support in your acknowledgement section by pointing to that person as anonymous or anonymous + a specification (e.g. anonymous professor from X University).

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  • I think that assumes a definite refusal to be acknowledged, though. – Buffy Apr 3 at 12:33
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    Since most journals have no such requirement, wouldn't it be better to work with the premise that when asked, the person would vocalize their refusal if they had reason to? – stuckstat Apr 3 at 12:37
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    @stuckstat, yes, and the coronavirus and its disruption may just be the reason for lack of communication. But, as you suggest, non communication shouldn't lead to an assumption either way. – Buffy Apr 3 at 12:41
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    "Anonymous from X University" isn't very anonymous. It will narrow it down to the small number of people at X University who work in the paper's subject area - in many cases, it will narrow it down to one person. If you want to keep them anonymous, just say "Anonymous" and don't give any more hints about their identity. – Nate Eldredge Apr 3 at 13:24
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    Technically he's not anonymous because you know his name. "We would like to acknowledge the help of a researcher, but this journal does not allow to us to mention his name" is odd but correct. – Federico Poloni Apr 3 at 14:17
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In the journal’s own words, their policy is:

Acknowledgements

Please acknowledge anyone who contributed towards the article who does not meet the criteria for authorship including anyone who provided professional writing services or materials.

Authors should obtain permission to acknowledge from all those mentioned in the Acknowledgements section.

In other words, they are requiring you to

  1. Acknowledge everyone who deserves to be acknowledged, and

  2. not acknowledge anyone who has not explicitly approved for you to acknowledge them.

Well honestly, if this had been the Journal of the Kafka Society of America, or the Proceedings of the Institute of Catch-22, I might be inclined to accept that it makes a remote bit of sense for them to have rules that can make it logically impossible for you to publish your paper. I might even congratulate the administrators of the journal for their dark sense of humor.

For any other journal with an expressly non-ironic mission, I’d go with Curt F.’s advice in the comments to find a journal managed by more sensible, logical people.

Think of it this way: if you’re having this much trouble before you’ve even submitted your paper, who knows what Kafkaesque nonsense awaits you further down the road in dealing with these people?

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    Obviously, it's implied that inability to satisfy the second criterion eliminates the need for the first. In other words, if a person denies permission for acknowledgment, then it is no longer necessary to acknowledge them. Journal publishers can assume their contributors are intelligent enough to figure this out, and therefore do not need to provide complicated if-then constructs specifying every possible eventuality. – Lanny Strack Apr 4 at 4:31
  • @LannyStrack I see from your profile you are good at logical deduction puzzles. Perhaps that’s why you can deduce what the rest of us need to have spelled out explicitly. As a general rule, a good journal policy should not require special deductive powers to interpret correctly or be open to multiple differing interpretations depending on the intelligence of the reader. Again, to me this seems to say something not very flattering about this journal or the people managing it. – Dan Romik Apr 4 at 6:50
  • While I usually like your answers, Dan Romik, this one seems strange. It seems very clear to me what the intention of the journal is (except in the case that you don't get an answer from one of the people to be acknowledged). Please note that it is not a math journal. I am with @LannyStrack here. – user111388 Apr 4 at 8:48
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    @user111388 except in the case that you don’t get an answer ...: hmm, isn’t this precisely the situation here? Why is it okay that the journal’s intention should be clear except in this one scenario that’s actually happening? And what does the fact that it’s not a math journal have to do with anything? Are journals in other disciplines not expected to have policies that make sense and don’t put authors in Kafkaesque situations? It’s maybe true that mathematicians have high standards for logic and consistency, but I don’t think non-mathematicians deserve a free pass to be illogical - do you? – Dan Romik Apr 4 at 9:12
  • Dear Dan Romik, I do agree that the case from the question (not replying) is problematic. Your answer make it sound to be if one would also have a problem with logic inconstistency when one person would not allow to be acknowledged, because it's not clear whether one should acknowledge them or not. I disagree here. For the math thing: I thing your thinking is very math-sy, non-math people would not think like this. For example, I once told non-math people the problem of the barber who shaves only people who do not shave themselves. They did not understand the problem at all because it was – user111388 Apr 4 at 10:06
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About ethics: Allowing this minor problem to cause a significant delay in publishing your article would be unethical because that would hamper scientific progress!

1) Yes, you should absolutely submit immediately, this is not the final version. It doesn't matter much if the acknowledgement is included in the version you submit now. Simply tell the editor that you want to acknowledge that prof but he hasn't replied to you yet. The review process will take a while in which time you might manage to get the permission. If you fail to get permission, you (or the editor) have to remove that acknowledgement from the article during the later stages of the review process, at the latest once you get your proofs. Do communicate the process with your editor, and see how they want to handle it.

2) This issue is important enough to warrant contacting the prof via another direct communication channel such as calling their official phone number or sending a Twitter direct message. Some people are just not on top of their e-mails, others change their address, maybe you misspelled it, and spam folders frequently hide away e-mails that the recipient would have wanted to read. However, I think it is overkill and stalky to get any third person involved. Hence there is no need to pressure common contacts or the journal editor to remind the prof to reply to your request. Also be mindful to keep the timing and frequency of your contact attempt(s) reasonable, especially considering the current crisis. Perhaps just make a single phone call once things are back to normal (leave a voice mail if they don't pick up). In your communication with the prof, state the consequences of not replying, namely them not getting acknowledged in the article.

Keep in mind that the wording of the journal rules is very clear on what to do: If you fail to get permission for whatever reason the acknowledgement shouldn't be printed. So all you should do is give the prof a fair chance to give permission. If they fail to give it, that's on them. There is nothing you can do.

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