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A year ago I began work on a problem. Shortly after I began in earnest, I told a very knowledgeable colleague about it. Because she is a person with catholic interests, she listened carefully and then simply said, "wrong approach". Knowing her breadth of knowledge, I trusted her, and in retrospect, if I had pursued the path of enquiry that I originally intended, I would have wasted 6 months.

My colleague's work on the problem amounted to only a few minutes ... close to zero in the scheme of things. In terms of her intellectual contribution, however, I would count those few minutes as having been absolutely critical; I was fortunate to have had the chance conversation.

I am now writing a paper. I could include my colleague's name, as I frequently see other people do, as an "also ran" in the never-to-be-remembered acknowledgements. Alternatively, I could list her as a co-author. Which?

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  • Did she say only "wrong approach" or did she suggest a better approach? Feb 10 at 3:13
  • No ... just two words ... "wrong approach", interpreted (correctly) as "if you go down that path you will waste your time". But it was clear to me after working for a few months ... on a correct, or at least better approach, that it was her deep knowledge of the subject matter that told her that my initial approach was dead wrong. Something it would have taken me several months to figure out. Feb 10 at 3:33
  • My conundrum is encapsulated to some degree in an old joke about a person who hires a plumber to fix a problem with a boiler. The plumber arrives, listens to the problem description, whacks the boiler (with successful results) and says: "That will be $200". "But", says the client in protest, "All you did was whack it. I could have done that!". "Yes", says the plumber, "you could have whacked it and probably broken it. It's my 10 years of experience that tell me how and where to whack it ... so, my $200 please." Feb 10 at 3:41
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    What does "catholic interests" mean here? Is the subject matter related to religion?
    – cag51
    Feb 10 at 4:50
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    No, Sorry for any confusion. Just the ordinary meaning of "catholic". Not "Roman Catholic" (capitalized, proper noun). merriam-webster.com/dictionary/catholic ... "Comprehensive, universal, diverse, " Feb 10 at 5:16

2 Answers 2

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In my assessment of the situation, I think that a generous acknowledgement suffices in this case. The bar for authorship ought to be higher than simply saying "wrong approach."

That said, nothing stops you from approaching the colleague again, thanking her for her insight, and asking her if she would like to collaborate towards the solution. If her deep insight helped you earlier, it might help you again and you have nothing to loose in the process. Then, you could truly add her as an co-author!

I also don't think that acknowledgements are in the "never to be remembered" category. If it is a genuine, heartfelt sentiment, then the giver and receiver both know it and that should be all that matters.

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In mathematics, I think this is approaching the edge case. It is possible in math to become an author in a five minute conversation, but IMO that would require transferring some key insight into the nature of the problem. I'm guessing that this didn't happen here and you found the proper insight into the solution to your problem later.

I would think that a very strong acknowledgement is warranted. Had she said "try this..." then it would likely constitute authorship (in math, at least).

Fields differ of course, but in theoretical fields it can be the same. Maybe even some applied fields.

Had I been that person and you asked me "are you an author of this", I'd say "no, but thanks for the suggestion".

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