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I am collaborating in a multi-authored paper in physics. In one part, I made a mathematical contribution and proved some important theorem.

However, I was not sure whether my proof is quite correct. Therefore, I posted a question on MathOverflow and a partial answer showed up which was very close to my proof and I would say that it was parallel (which is clear if someone reads the comments). Nevertheless, the answerer made some remark, which is well known in literature, but I wasn't aware of it and it helped me to improve my proof.

In my opinion an acknowledgement would suffice and I really would like to acknowledge him, but at the same time I don't want to cite this question in the paper, because of two reasons: 1) I'm pretty sure that it would make problems regarding who made the contributions (among my coauthors and the answerer), 2) The post is somewhat pedagogically since I was new in that field.

Now, my question is: can I acknowledge the answerer without letting him know? Or should I let him know beforehand? In the latter case he would say that I have to cite that post, which I don't want to. What is the best action here?

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    Was this a public post where they gave their real name? It's a matter of record, this is what they said? If they put it out there in the public sphere, that's usually fair game to cite or remark on any way you like, even without permission. For example, a lot of Wikipedia articles cite Usenet posts with names of the authors and they definitely didn't ask permission. May 24 at 12:53

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Being acknowledged in a paper does not imply that the person being acknowledged is endorsing the content of the paper, or is making any other sort of statement.* Thus, there is no need or ethical obligation to ask the person’s permission; you are free to go ahead. You can inform the person that you acknowledged them if you wish, and it would be a courtesy, but even that is not a requirement. I have been acknowledged on a number of occasions and in most cases I don’t think the people doing so bothered to let me know especially, nor have I made special efforts to contact all the people I’ve acknowledged in all my papers.

As for citing or not citing the mathoverflow question, I don’t have a strong opinion about whether you should cite it, but your reasons for not wanting to cite it seem not very good. In general, wanting to hide information from the readers because you think it makes you look bad (whether fairly or unfairly) is a bad motivation for hiding that information. And hiding information from your coauthors, for any reason, is even worse and may really start implying some not very good things about your motives. Your decision whether to include a citation should depend solely on whether that information is sufficiently relevant to what you are discussing and/or important to give credit to someone. It may be that there is no compelling reason here to cite the question, but at least you should make that decision based on legitimate criteria and not fears, rational or irrational, that this will “make problems” for you.

* That is true as long as the acknowledgement isn’t phrased in a dishonest way to misleadingly imply something that isn’t true. See the discussion in the comments for examples.

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  • I think there's some dependence on the nature of the acknowledgment. Thanking someone for helpful discussions or for pointing to a relevant reference does not imply endorsement, but thanking someone for providing or checking some result(s) used in the paper would seem to imply an endorsement at least in part.
    – Anyon
    May 24 at 15:28
  • Thanks for the answer! I am not afraid of what I have written in my post, because from that post it is clear that I already worked on the problem and had partial results, and I also corrected the answerer and gave several inputs. However, the posts are usually edited several times and usually no one will make effort to see who did what! Because I had bad experiences in some collaborations I just want to avoid misunderstandings und nonsensical conflicts. I think I will acknowledge him and send an email after I put the paper on arXiv.
    – Astrolabe
    May 24 at 16:36
  • @Anyon there’s no dependence, you just aren’t allowed to state things that aren’t factually true. If I write “Thanks to the Dalai Lama for our many nights together drinking red wine and reading poetry”, His Holiness will have some good reasons to be upset with me. If I write “Thanks to the Dalai Lama for inspiring this work on automorphic L-functions”, then that’s fine and I don’t need his permission, if the sentiment is genuine. Similarly, if someone actually checked the proofs in my paper, I don’t need their permission to thank them for that, since I’m not implying anything that isn’t true.
    – Dan Romik
    May 24 at 16:59
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    @Astrolabe I’m sorry you had conflicts with coauthors in the past. It still seems to me you are overthinking this. Again, wanting to “avoid misunderstandings and nonsensical conflicts” is a bad reason to decide to cite or not to cite a reference. It may be a good reason to take other actions, such as working on having good communication with your coauthors, or even deciding not to collaborate with certain people, but I don’t think it should influence your citation decision.
    – Dan Romik
    May 24 at 17:06
  • I see your point! I have formulated my thoughts not clearly. I think I have enough reasons not to cite that post independently of what I said earlier. Thanks for the help!
    – Astrolabe
    May 24 at 17:19
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Generally speaking, if you include the real name of a living person in a paper other than in a citation then you should get their permission. They might want to refuse, depending on the paper you are writing.

There are exceptions to the above for "public figures" such as presidents and movie personalities, but those things don't apply here.

If you want to acknowledge a person anonymously then you don't need permission. But including the name of the person "connects" them to the paper in a way that they might not want to happen.

Note that I doubt that this is a universal opinion. But it is courteous, if nothing more to get permission.

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  • Thanks! But what happens if he demands that he should be a coauthor, which I don't think should be?
    – Astrolabe
    May 24 at 10:56
  • Just say no. From the rest of your description it doesn't seem warranted. In particular, they made no commitment to the direction of the paper as a whole.
    – Buffy
    May 24 at 11:28
  • That is true. Still, I'm worried about the post since I don't want to cite it and if I contact him he most likely would tell me to cite it, which again I don't want to.
    – Astrolabe
    May 24 at 12:12
  • Actually, they can only "ask" you to cite it, not "tell" you. You only need permission to use their name.
    – Buffy
    May 24 at 12:16

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