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My PhD supervisor and I are co-authoring a paper. We have an excellent relation, and he is both a well-regarded scientist in its field and a deeply religious person. In our co-authored paper, he wants to include, for the first time in his career, a perfunctory thanks to God in the acknowledgements. Nevertheless, our field has an ongoing and widely publicized scuffle with intelligent design and I am afraid that such statement might hinder the paper's credibility or insult some readers.

Although not religious, I am a strong defendant of people's (and my supervisor's) freedom of belief as long as their doctrines aren't violent or discriminatory, which his aren't. It is, for me, a matter of tolerance. He also is very respectful of my position and has made clear that he didn't wanted to sneak the sentence without my consent. Furthermore, he is not trying to push any religious agenda, it is simply something that has to do with his personal beliefs.

The paper is sound from a scientific stance, no single word in its body hints anyhow to God to fill gaps in the argument and he isn't planning to include a grandiloquent dedication, but I am still afraid that squeamish readers would take matters personally and discard the paper without a second reading, affect my career in the long the long term or, even worse, we might hit the news ("see these people, they are thanking god in their paper").

Am I risking something big if I say "yes", go ahead? Should I refuse to let him put the word God in the paper? Is there any precedent of a paper in which God was thanked by the authors?

EDIT: This questions has been flagged as duplicate. I would like to clarify why it's different:

  1. The authorship of a thesis, including its acknowledgements, belongs to the student and is not shared with the supervisor. It is (explicitly or implicitly) understood that everything that goes into a thesis was written by the student and approved by the supervisor, but, in regards with the acknowledgements, it's the students choice who to thank and the supervisor has no voice or vote on that matter. Have you ever seen thesis acknowledgements written jointly by supervisor and student? Can a supervisor ask a student to thank his wife (or his God)? Probably not. On the contrary, authorship and responsibility is fully shared in papers.
  2. Theses are more of a formality and can be stored for decades without much attention. Papers, on the other side, are meant to reach the large amounts of readers and it is very likely that someone, sooner or later, will spot the dedication.
  3. I wasn't clear enough about a key point in my question and will expand here. I wouldn't mind saying "yes" to my supervisor or following @Ritz recommendation if this was a paper in, lets say, accounting, business administration or even engineering, but my field is in full confrontation with intelligent design and some people might read the acknowledgements as a nod to the movement. (I see my supervisor as a good example of NOMA. Some people can do excellent science and be religious. So far, in the scientific realm, we are doing pretty well, but the reader is not going to care about that.)
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Sep 28 '16 at 5:55

13 Answers 13

185

On a coauthored paper, it's perfectly reasonable for the acknowledgments to specify who is thanking whom when it's just a subset of the authors, and this is not uncommon (e.g., "X and Y are grateful to the A Institute for hosting their visit" or the like, when author Z wasn't actually there). This is the approach Ritz suggested in the comments, and I'd strongly recommend it. For example, in this paper one author thanks God, without including the others.

I'm sure nobody would hold this against you personally, and I can't really believe anyone would discard or disbelieve the paper because of the acknowledgments. It might indeed get some attention: even in mathematics, I've heard people comment on an author's tendency to thank God (nothing negative, just a "gee, that's unusual"), and I can imagine it might get more attention in areas where religion is more contentious. However, I don't think you need to worry that your career will suffer because your coauthor thanked God.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Sep 28 '16 at 18:29
34

I think there's no universally right answer, but you should try going through some steps for your situation:

  1. Does it conflict with your beliefs? Personally I would be adamantly against such a thing in a paper I was a coauthor on, but that's my personal belief. I'm guessing it clashes at least a little with your personal belief or you wouldn't be here asking us about it, but that's a question you should think carefully about. Your opinion matters on this, and if you feel strongly then you shouldn't let someone else override your feeling without due consideration.

  2. Is it likely to conflict with your audience? Look at some other papers, see if this is done anywhere in your field. Your adviser can afford not to worry as much about this because they're established; you may need to pay more attention to it.

  3. Will it upset your adviser? There's a clear power problem here, with your adviser asking you casually about this - can you afford to say no to their requests? Would they take it well if you said no, and would that affect you later? Conversely, would they be very appreciative if you said yes?

For two and three you could try asking someone else you trust in the department what their opinion is on the matter. For number one, you'll just need to do some, dare I say, soul searching.

Good luck!

Edit: Another thought I had later is to consider why your professor is interested in doing this for the first time, now. Did they only recently become religious? Or did something hold them back from doing it before, that they now feel secure enough in their position to cope with, or religious enough to make it worth the cost? This may suggest that there's something there worthy of your concern as well.

Also, given that you've clarified that your field intersects with the intelligent design movement, number 2 may be a particularly big concern.

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    His religious believes haven't change in decades and probably at this stage he cannot secure his position even more (tenured). He went away with a bad situation (professional and familiar) and wants to thank for that. Point 2 is what particularly concerns me. Although there are a few religious people in my field, they mostly keep it underground because the scientific community has grown wary of the topic. – je_b Sep 27 '16 at 19:42
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    @je_b From what you're saying, this seems like something you should feel comfortable asking him to do on his next paper, and not on your first foray into academic publishing. I would approach it delicately so he knows you're conflicted; you want to respect his beliefs, but in the end you have to be far more concerned with what others will think than he does. That way you frame it as being about "others" and not about you. – Jeff Sep 27 '16 at 19:54
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    "Your opinion matters on this, and if you feel strongly then you shouldn't let someone else override your feeling without due consideration." This is an interesting turn of phrase. Wouldn't it go both ways? How do you come to an agreement if the other party takes this approach as well? Does not seem to be the case here, but certainly could happen. The other points are good, though. – jpmc26 Sep 28 '16 at 22:45
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    @jpmc26: "Wouldn't it go both ways? How do you come to an agreement if the other party takes this approach as well?" - if you extrapolate this further, another co-author might have felt the very god that one co-author wants to thank to have been a real hindrance throughout the research. The only way such positions are reconcileable seems to be to focus on tangible, direct contributions, and then only acknowledge contributors that have, as a whole, provided sufficiently many of these contributions. Maybe the described situation needs to be tackled in a similar way. – O. R. Mapper Sep 29 '16 at 6:43
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If I were in your position, I would feel a little uncomfortable about acknowledging God (for God, read "a god", "the God", "Gods", or whatever) in a paper as well. Not, I hasten to add, because I have any problem with a scientist believing in God, but just because I don't think that is really what the acknowledgement section is for.

Most journals ask for acknowledgements to be kept brief and specific. I interpret this to mean that they are for acknowledging a specific contribution to the paper that was not sufficient to merit co-authorship. Therefore, they should acknowledge someone for something, not just acknowledge the person in general. What would one acknowledge God for? If it's anything specifically related to your work, then it will be controversial in your field, but if it's for something more vague like "comfort and support" then I don't see the need. Similarly, if I read an acknowledgement along those lines to someone's spouse or partner in a paper, I would consider it ever-so-slightly unprofessional. Certainly not a huge deal, but it would jar a little.

Perhaps you could use a similar argument with your supervisor - play down the personal aspect (that you yourself feel uncomfortable about it), and focus on the fact that it's just not really the done thing. If you can quote something from the "instructions for authors" for your target journal (they often make a brief mention of acknowledgements) then so much the better.

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    You say, "I don't think that is really what the acknowledgement section is for." For a person of faith, as John Lennox points out, God isn't viewed as a "God of the Gaps", but rather the "God of the whole thing". In other words, nothing... not even the universe... would be possible without God. If gratitude is due to anyone, surely it would be due to any person without whom the enterprise could not have happened. I don't see any logical reason for a person of faith not to acknowledge this. Likewise with spouses; if you've been working on this 80 hrs/week, your spouse deserves thanks! – Terry Lewis Sep 27 '16 at 20:14
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    @TerryLewis. Sure, absolutely! But it doesn't necessarily follow that the acknowledgement section of a scientific manuscript is the right place for either of those things. – user2390246 Sep 27 '16 at 20:16
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    I'm not sure I understand your reasoning... it seems to me that an acknowledgement section would be where you acknowledge ANYONE you felt significantly contributed to your completion of the work, in whatever capacity. I'd think persons would be included solely at the author's discretion. They are the only one who knows what they impact they had on the process. I don't see the reason to leave out someone just because they didn't directly contribute to the final output, unless such a citation is expressly forbidden. Rather than finding it unprofessional, I would consider it gracious. – Terry Lewis Sep 27 '16 at 22:09
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    Thesis acknowledgements often run to a page or more. The trouble is that journals are pressed for space (though perhaps less so now that things are moving more and more to online, so maybe the culture will change) and if each of maybe five or more authors gives a long Oscars-style speech of thanks then the paper will become considerably bloated. It is for this reason that acknowledgements are generally restricted to those who have made a scientific contribution. Furthermore, there have to be better ways to thank one's spouse, or indeed one's God, than a tiny footnote in a paper. – user2390246 Sep 28 '16 at 7:20
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    @TerryLewis: "If gratitude is due to anyone, surely it would be due to any person without whom the enterprise could not have happened." - I think what the answer is trying to say is that the acknowledgments section should be restricted to acknowledging the most specific and direct contributions. That sounds logical, for any more general or more indirect support can either be deduced from that, or will be the same for several works, at which point the public acknowledgment may happen at a higher level (PhD thesis, author's website, author's memoirs, etc.) to avoid redundancy. – O. R. Mapper Sep 29 '16 at 6:19
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I don't think you should approach it as "do I refuse it or allow it?", but rather as "let's talk about it." Try having a friendly, respectful conversation which addresses:

  • your concerns about how it might affect the perception of the paper
  • why he wants to include this acknowledgement in this paper specifically

It sounds to me like he is trying to be gentle about this, and there's a good chance when he hears your concerns he might just say, "Okay, don't worry about it. I'll put it in my next paper." Or he may be able to allay your concerns. Also, he may have a specific reason wanting to acknowledge God in this paper.

If such an acknowledgement were included, the wording might also affect how it is perceived. If it is of the form [supervisor] thanks God for..., there will probably be no impact on how you are perceived. Or if it is something that might be read as being clever, like We thank God for providing intelligent arguments against intelligent design, I don't think it would engender any bias against your paper. (In fact, I personally don't think most scientists would read a low-key thanks to God as an indicator of unscientific work, but I don't know what things are like in your field.)

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I do not recommend to put a thanks to God in a paper's acknowledgement.

I think a very strong point against it which is still missing is the purpose of a scientific paper.

A thesis is your own creative work which you worked years on and you did it to show scientific ability and (ideally) for your own character building. So many companions and circumstances have done something to help you...so it is quite normal that people are very thankful to exactly those companions and circumstances to complete the work and this includes the own religious convictions.

But a paper has a different purpose: It is for informing your peers about the results of your work. You do not inform them

  • that you are blonde and have green eyes
  • that you enjoyed your holiday in Greece 2 days before
  • that you are a avid reader
  • that Prof. Dr. Miller trust you and have very much confidence in your result

Why ? Because it has nothing to do with the result of the work you are trying to communicate and defend. Your peers are interested in your experiments and arguments you bring forward, nothing else. The acknowledgments are strictly for exactly those people which made your results possible.

It is the point of methodological naturalism: Imagine you have different people with vastly different worldviews. Your only chance to convince them all is that you put exactly those arguments and evidence forward which cannot be denied by any personal conviction which is not based on evidence. For example Mr. Miller may trust you, but some people may point out that there is no way we can check out if Miller is mistaken and some people may go so far that they personally do not trust Miller. So the point of a scientific paper is exactly to do that: Present your case so that you can assume nothing about the person you are trying to convince and still convince them. So privately you can still believe anything you like, but when writing your paper you only present your case from a strictly neutral viewpoint.

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    IF you believe that God has helped you in your work, then it would be right to acknowledge that. If you are saying that no-one can have that belief, then you are sounding a little bigoted. Going back to the original question - I think a good solution would be "Author X would like to thank and acknoledge the help of God in his work" or similar. – Paul Hedderly Sep 29 '16 at 11:09
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    @PaulHedderly: Consequently, IF you are convinced that God has helped you considerably in the work, is it justified to add God to the authors list? How do you deal with the case that one or more co-authors disagree with that? – O. R. Mapper Sep 29 '16 at 11:59
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    @PaulHedderly I think you still understood me wrong: I did not say that no-one can have the belief that God helped him. I said that it does not matter what one personally believes, the only thing important are vaild arguments for the case. I can believe that my tincture cures cancer and it may even so, but I need to convince others with tests that it really does. If you mention someone giving you resources or advice, I can ask him. I cannot ask God (well, I can, but I will not expect an answer). So, how do I as neutral observer can retrace that God helped you in your work ? – Thorsten S. Oct 2 '16 at 20:22
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I made the comment that "Personally, if this is a secular paper coming from a secular environment, I view the request as inappropriate and less than professional" and feel like I should expand on this as an answer. At least in the US, injecting religion into the secular workplace is not a normal thing to do. If your supervisor questioned you on your religious background when deciding whether or not to take you on, that would have been illegal.

I think you have to look at this as a possible religious test on you. Just the fact that you're asking about it shows that you are uncomfortable with it.

It's hard to say what I'd do in your situation, but I hope that I would choose to approach my supervisor, and say "This topic is making me uncomfortable, and I would prefer to keep our secular paper secular".

You have every right to feel comfortable in your workplace, and every right to complain about it loudly if you don't.

Lastly, as you're launching your career, you don't need to stand out as the guy who's papers acknowledge God. Frankly, its odd.

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    " At least in the US, injecting religion into the secular workplace is not a normal thing to do" - That may have something to do with your definition of "secular workplace". In quite some countries, government is considered a secular workplace, yet in the US it seems almost obligatory for government (at least the head of state) to inject religion. – oerkelens Sep 27 '16 at 22:04
  • "If your supervisor questioned you on your religious background when deciding whether or not to take you on, that would have been illegal." - interestingly, this could have been one of the best ways to preemptively "solve" (read: avoid/circumnavigate) the situation at hand, along the lines of agreeing on conventions for working together (e.g. what requirements must be fulfilled for someone to be included in the acknowledgments?) before starting to work together. – O. R. Mapper Sep 29 '16 at 6:26
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    @O.R.Mapper -- some things are just never discussed because the behavior is just so inappropriate. Picture going into a job interview at a university and being asked "how do you feel about a clothing-optional workplace?" It just isn't done. – Scott Seidman Sep 29 '16 at 14:54
  • @ScottSeidman: Absolutely - and yet, also in this case, I would probably be happier had the issue come up in the interview than being surprised by the colleague who opts against the optional clothes after starting my job. – O. R. Mapper Sep 29 '16 at 15:56
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    I disagree here, because there is a big difference between a religion-neutral workplace and a secular workplace. Most workplaces in the US are expected to be religion-neutral but not expected to be secular. – Alexander Woo Sep 30 '16 at 3:06
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Although not religious, I am a strong defendant of people's (and my supervisor's) freedom of belief as long as their doctrines are non violent or discriminatory, which his aren't.

Your tolerance is laudable, but tolerance implies not trying to coerce other people into professing a belief in a religion that they don't actually believe in. That is exactly what your supervisor is trying to do to you.

This whole thing is wildly inappropriate. Suppose, for comparison, that Mrs. Ramakrishna hires Mr. Martinez to come and do yard work at her house. He shows up, pulls weeds, prunes fruit trees, and mows the lawn. Then, when he's all done and the yard is looking really spiffy, Mrs. Ramakrishna says that before she writes Mr. Martinez a check, she would like him to walk out in the middle of the street with her and hold up a sign saying, "Thank you, Lord Brahma, for creating the grass and the trees." After displaying the sign for 15 minutes to every passing motorist, Mr. Martinez will get paid.

Now Mr. Martinez happens to be Catholic. This is not OK with him. He is being forced to profess a belief in a religion that he does not believe in. He didn't know when he signed up for the job that this would be a requirement. The whole idea is outside the norms in his field of work. And adding to the inappropriateness of the situation is the fact there is a power relationship here. Mrs. Ramakrishna has the money and the power, and Mr. Martinez is screwed because he's the low man on the totem pole.

Ritz suggests in a comment:

Instead of saying 'We would like to thank God ...' you could ask your supervisor to write 'The second authors wants to thank God ...', where your supervisor is the second author.

To continue the metaphor, this kind of thing could be a survival mechanism if Mr. Martinez is desperate for the money and Mrs. Ramakrishna is a nasty, vindictive person who will not respond well if he straightforwardly points out how inappropriate her idea is. The fact that it might be a successful survival mechanism does not in any way mean that Mrs. Ramakrishna's actions are OK.

Some might reject my analogy-fable as a false analogy, because Mr. Martinez fears for his soul if he professes belief in Lord Brahma, whereas je_b merely says s/he is "not religious." The trouble here is that religious beliefs are not just warm fuzzy feelings, they are serious belief systems that have had serious consequences historically, including some that were truly horrific.

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    This is a poor analogy. As many other answers have already mentioned, the authors do not have to thank as a group. – March Ho Sep 28 '16 at 15:56
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    I like the analogy, notably the part about the nasty, vindictive person. If OPs supervisor is such a person, it would be beneficial for OP to know it as soon as possible. If the supervisor does not back with such a simple workaround in this case, i'd be worried about what may come next. – grochmal Sep 28 '16 at 21:41
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    That is a classic "straw man" analogy. – Paul Hedderly Sep 29 '16 at 11:08
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    Just for the record, I define myself as agnostic and was raised as such. My supervisor is very disciplined in his beliefs, though; but nothing close to nasty or vindictive. The analogy is out place either way. – je_b Sep 29 '16 at 13:14
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    I completely agree about the inappropriateness of such an acknowledgement in an academic journal. As a journal editor, I would definitely ask the author(s) for the removal of such mentions. – Xi'an Sep 30 '16 at 10:25
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Religion is a personal thing. It is perfectly fine for your supervisor to have his beliefs. However to acknowledge God in a scientific paper is not appropriate, and will almost certainly harm his (and your) credibility. I believe you can be respectful of his beliefs without agreeing to this. If he presses the issue. You could perhaps ask him exactly why he wants to do this? What could be the positive outcome? It will not be well received by your peers, and he obviously can thank God personally without making a public acknowledgement.

3

Half a year ago, in March 2016, there was actually a quite similar incident involving a paper in the PLOS ONE journal, where the authors flatout stated that:

[The] mechanical architecture [of the human hand] is the proper design by the Creator for dexterous performance of numerous functions.

This raised a large uproar in the scientific community, leading to debate over proper reviewing ethics and ultimately the retraction of the article by the editors of PLOS ONE.

Now, this wasn't in an acknowledgement, but in the paper proper, but the situation is strikingly similar. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if a second paper with overt references to religion might lead to a similar result with widespread derision and debate followed by editorial retraction, especially considering this is most likely in the same field (biology).

If you made this paper a year ago, there probably wouldn't be much ado about it, but considering the event mentioned above, it might not be prudent to make this acknowledgement.

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    It is not strikingly similar. It is completely different. In the PLoS case, the authors were claiming that god is the science; in the question at hand, one of the authors wishes to thank god for helping them do the science. If religion helped that author feel better about themself, then that probably did help them do the science. I don't think that's something that should be acknowledged because it's a contribution to the person, not directly to the research (and we don't acknowledge our spouses or favourite coffee shop). But it cannot be compared to the incident you describe. – David Richerby Oct 2 '16 at 9:07
  • That case seems more like somewhere that a reviewer should have handed out an xkcd.com/285 – Mark K Cowan Oct 4 '16 at 15:35
  • The interesting irony is that you seemingly can assume various theories about opportunistic evolution as fact without proof and even directly state belief in such without at qualms now. – Paul Hedderly Oct 21 '16 at 15:09
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You can consider doing what they did in Israel's declaration of independence. It references "Tsur Israel" (צור ישראל), which is one of the names of God but can also simply mean "the strength of Israel". So everybody can interpret it however they feel comfortable.

If you can come up with a way to acknowledge God indirectly and your supervisor is ok with it, it might be the best compromise.

3

@AnonymousMathematician's answer is the canonically correct one and essentially solves the problem, but an idea occurred to me that complements it a bit. My thought is that both of the coauthors have the right to include individual acknowledgements in the paper, so certainly if your coauthor would like to acknowledge God, he must likewise allow you to acknowledge whomever you want. This could enable you to distance yourself further from his acknowledgement (if you feel that doing so would be to your advantage) in several creative ways. For example:

Author A acknowledges the support of the National Science Foundation through grant X, and thanks his colleague Professor Y for a suggestion that improved the proof of Lemma 7.1, and God for his guidance and inspiration. Author B thanks The Flying Spaghetti Monster for helping him overcome his addiction to Netflix, which was crucial to the timely completion of this work.

Or:

Author A is thankful to God. Author B thanks Charles Darwin for inspiring him to become a scientist.

Or:

Author A thanks God. Author B is thankful to Author A for providing him a useful lesson regarding the value of ideological tolerance in acknowledgements sections.

And so on - Author B can insert an acknowledgement to the laws of quantum field theory, to "my Creator, who gave birth to me 43 years ago last July", or any number of other entities that he factually is grateful to for existing and facilitating his scientific journey. If this is executed in a tactful way that doesn't sound too passive aggressive, and the acknowledgement is factually correct, the readers will get the message and the religious coauthor should not have any cause to be offended (although he might regret bringing up the idea of acknowledging God...).

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    "If this is executed in a tactful way that doesn't sound too passive aggressive" - That's the problem with your suggestions: all of these sound passive-aggressive to me to some extent. Though perhaps the Charles Darwin one would be reasonable. I can't see mention of the Flying Spaghetti Monster being anything but negative for the relationship with the co-author. – user2390246 Dec 7 '16 at 9:13
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    @user2390246 I'm not sure I agree (though I'm not sure I disagree either). More precisely, why is it any more passive aggressive for OP to acknowledge the Flying Spaghetti Monster than for the coauthor to acknowledge God? The point of my answer (which I admit is somewhat tongue in cheek) is that there is a symmetry here, and that if the religious coauthor wants to thank an entity whose existence is not universally agreed upon, he has no moral right to object to, or express indignation about, OP acknowledging other such entities. Hopefully he has a sense of humor and can take the joke. – Dan Romik Dec 7 '16 at 9:27
  • I agree in principle that there is symmetry, but in practice it clearly looks to Author A, and to most readers, like a dig at Author A. – user2390246 Dec 7 '16 at 9:32
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    "why is it any more passive aggressive for OP to acknowledge the Flying Spaghetti Monster than for the coauthor to acknowledge God" for one thing, because the former is in all likelihood not sincere, and this will be clear to everybody. This even leaving aside that, to my understanding, the entire point of that narrative is to make fun of religious believes. I find this one a complete no-go. The others, or something up-front, maybe. I believe there is an actual precedent of something like this. I believe I saw it on MO but cannot find it. – quid Dec 7 '16 at 11:42
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    @user2390246 and quid, good comments, thanks. I agree there is a chance of causing offense. To clarify, my intention with the Flying Spaghetti Monster example was not to make fun of the coauthor's religious beliefs per se, but rather to distance the OP from those beliefs in an unambiguous, good-natured and (hopefully) inoffensive way. However on further reflection I can see that there is a good chance that this subtle distinction will be lost on the coauthor and/or the paper's readers, so probably you are right that using this language is inadvisable. – Dan Romik Dec 7 '16 at 18:31
2

You should consider talking to the graduate program supervisor in your faculty/department and asking for their thoughts/advice. Regardless of whether you agree to this or not, your supervisor is pressuring you through his position of authority - which is inappropriate.

Also, I would try talking to other former or existing supervisees (is that a word?) of your supervisor, to determine whether this actually is the first time he has wanted to do that.

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    It's very low, running to authorities because of a personal disagreement that you have not tried to solve yourself and is not yet of any consequence. – Karl Oct 2 '16 at 13:11
  • @Karl: I didn't say file a complaint, maybe I should make that clearer. – einpoklum Oct 2 '16 at 22:14
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Yes, you are risking something and should refuse. Regardless of whether he personally owns the acknowledgement to God, your content will be "guilty" by association to some, and you too, by extension. You have explained that you fear this, and it is a reasonable fear. You have said he respects your position and would not do this without your consent, so he is already prepared to omit this, and has less to lose by doing so. God knows his mind--He does not need to be acknowledged publicly on a paper to feel appreciated. Be honest with your supervisor.

protected by ff524 Sep 28 '16 at 5:55

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