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In most fields, I think, it is common to use the acknowledgement section to thank everyone for their input who contributed to the paper but did not enough to warrant co-authorship. As a biostatistician working in medicine, however, I have experienced it several times that researchers want to include me as a co-author, although I have not contributed anything or do not even agree with the methods they used, just to make the impression that they have a professional statistician on board. In these situations, I refuse authorship, which usually puts an end to the debate.

Recently, there was one of these cases where a researcher used a methodology that was in my view inferior and even wrong and refused to follow my suggestions. They accepted my rejection of authorship, but wrote in the acknowledgement that they "thank LuckyPal for statistical support".

I feel taken advantage of, and it smells of academic misconduct. However, the journal (a quite reputable one) has no policy of requiring consent of people named in the acknowledgement section. The phrasing "statistical support" is probably broad enough to allow for interpretations that come close to the truth, so it is not plain wrong. If the authors would actually contact the journal to change the acknowledgement, it will at least look somewhat fishy from the journal's perspective.

Is it legitimate to demand to be removed from the acknowledgement?

Follow-Up

Thank you for the very helpful dicussion here. I asked the first author to remove my name from the acknowledgements. They first suggested to remove my name and instead thank the institute, were I am employed. This suggestion has further increased my suspicion that their goal was not to actually acknowledge my time and effort. The director of my institute disagreed with this suggestion. The author then contacted the journal, which has now actually removed the statement about statistical support or expertise from the acknowledgement completely.

I am glad that it all went well without further escalation. I will refrain from collaborating with this research group in the future.

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    To put things into perspective, here's some scholarly work (possibly outdated - but directly addressing the questions at hand) on the subject. Cronin, Blaise, and Kara Overfelt. "The scholar's courtesy: A survey of acknowledgement behaviour." Journal of Documentation (1994) emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/eb026929/full/html Jun 16, 2023 at 15:35
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    Some details from this (non-representative) survey to indicate the academic norms around acknowledgements (in 1994 - things may have changed since...): 50% of authors never seek permission to acknowledge, 40% sometimes do, 10% always do. Jun 16, 2023 at 15:38
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    Current journal policies differ on the practice. For example, here is one publisher that requires to obtain permission bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/submission-guidelines/… Jun 16, 2023 at 15:43
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    Is it possible that the author is being honest? They sought your advice, listened to your criticism of their methodology, and your reasons for the criticism; they considered your arguments, and decided that they were satisfied that their analysis was sound; finally, they were grateful to you for helping them to feel confident, so they felt they should acknowledge your input in some way? Jun 17, 2023 at 3:02
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    @SimonCrase I cannot exclude this possibility, but in approx. 400 projects that I have consulted I was maybe mentioned half a dozen times in the acknowledgements (excluding my actual co-authorships, of course). So it seems to be very unusual to mention me for 2-3 hours of consultation, particularly given that they did not follow my arguments.
    – LuckyPal
    Jun 17, 2023 at 17:04

2 Answers 2

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The purpose of the acknowledgements is to acknowledge help and support from other people and funders. In this case the authors' did exactly that and correctly acknowledged your support. The fact that you are mentioned in the acknowledgements does not imply that you endorse the paper and therefore there is generally no need (and no policy) of journals to check whether the people acknowledged in the paper endorse the paper.

However, moving forward you might want to make your statistical support contingent on you signing off on the final manuscript even when you are not an author. That way you can control whether your name appears as part of the paper or not, and whether the language in the acknowledgments accurately represents your contribution. While in theory acknowledgements do not equal endorsement, I agree that there is (very small) implied endorsement by simply being associated with it. For example, I would not like my name appear in a fundamentally unethical study that's going to make the world wide news.

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    ‘The fact that you are mentioned in the acknowledgements does not imply that you endorse the paper’, I think many people would see it as such though.
    – user438383
    Jun 16, 2023 at 14:54
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    To strengthen your post, please add a citation for your claim that "The fact that you are mentioned in the acknowledgements does not imply that you endorse the paper" as well as your ethical claim "In this case the authors' did exactly that and correctly acknowledged your support." Many fields are different, and perhaps your has a lower bar than mine Jun 16, 2023 at 14:56
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    One way to frame this question is to think of scientific publishing as not that different from any other kinds of publishing, such as newspaper articles, TV news, blogging, or whatever. And one of the things that often comes up is the subject of libel and defamation. But in general, a truthful statements cannot be libel or defamation. The situation is similar here, can "LuckyPal" claim that what was written was incorrect and harmful to their reputation. I think that's the right way to frame the question, not whether they approve of the study or whether they were asked. Jun 16, 2023 at 15:55
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    For me, an acknowledgement means that the work was not substantial enough to be a co-author but otherwise it shows complete support for the paper. It never crossed my mind that someone in the acknowledgments may be uncomfortable with the article.
    – WoJ
    Jun 17, 2023 at 9:09
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    Among these 400 projects, I have very rarely be considered in the acknowledgement, simply because it is very unusual. So I guess there are two possible explanations. Either the authors were very grateful for my consultation (which I doubt, otherwise they would have followed my suggestions, wouldn't they?) or they wanted to make the impression of statistical expertise in their paper. Nevertheless, I am surprised that many people seem to share that perspective of acknowledgement not implying endorsement. That's definitely something that I have came to learn now, and I will consider it.
    – LuckyPal
    Jun 17, 2023 at 16:40
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First, I disagree with the other answer.

To your question: Is it legitimate to demand to be removed from the acknowledgement?

You should object to being acknowledged without your permission. For example, my agency has a federal policy against listing people in the acknowledgments without their consent (listed here). Furthermore, I have had people confirm that I did obtain permission to list people in the acknowledgments of papers.

I also remember reading on an American Statistical Association list server (whose location I do not remember is behind a membership wall for privacy) that a biostatistician/statistician should NEVER accept acknowledgements. As illustrated by your example, acknowledgements give you liability (such as people thinking you approve of their method) without reward (specifically being granted coauthorship).

If the authors refuse to remove you, contact the editor to the journal and ask to be removed. Hopefully that will work and a correct version of the manuscript will be published. If that does not works, here are some options:

  • Depending upon the amount of effort you want to put into your work, write a response article criticizing the paper.
  • Raise ethic concerns with journal, your employer, and ethical employer.
  • Do a formal ethics complaint with their professional society if they hold membership.
  • Complaint to the funding agency (such as NIH in the US).

Lastly, if you do not want to do that much work and stop after contacting the journal, you might just blacklist the people and refuse to help them ever again.

Sadly, you learned through the "school of hard knocks" why acknowledgements give you liability without reward for statistics.

Edits based upon comments:

  1. In the Policy, "Individuals listed in the acknowledgements section should be notified before the scientific information product is released or published." implies the person also gives their consent to be listed. I do not have a formal citation for this policy, but have been told this interpretation by people who enforce the policy.

  2. Statistical consultation for ad hoc analysis or questions about methods by itself would only be acknowledgements, but in the survey statisticians are usually involved with the study design, interpretation of results, and writing the paper.

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    I can perfectly understand being uncomfortable about an acknowledgment, but there is no way that it creates "liability" (which is a legally loaded term). If you agree, maybe choose a different expression (dunno, "assumed consent," or such)? Jun 16, 2023 at 20:30
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    @RichardErickson thanks a lot for your answer. I strongly to attend to agree with your view. I actually decided to ask the authors to remove me from the acknowledgement. Maybe I will also contact the journal, but probably no more escalation after that, also considering what others have written here about the status of acknowledgements. I will definitely follow "you might just blacklist the people and refuse to help them ever again." :)
    – LuckyPal
    Jun 17, 2023 at 16:45

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