Guest post: four drafts of Acknowledgments

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from Greg Crowther.

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When I first composed the Acknowledgments section of my latest paper, it was fine but unremarkable:

Mentorship of GJC by LDJ was supported in part by a PALM Fellowship (PI: Susan Wick, University of Minnesota). We thank Susan Wick for encouragement and comments on a draft of this paper, and Subin Hyun for illustrations in the Appendix.

Weeks later, as I made some post-review revisions, I got to thinking about how the ideas behind the paper had evolved over the past two years — how privately ranting to a colleague had led to the present attempt at constructive advice for teaching biology better. And so the Acknowledgments grew:

We also thank Jonathan Pottle for feedback on GJC’s ideas for an “A&P manifesto,” which indirectly fueled the writing of the present article.

I then reflected more broadly on my development as an instructor. I realized that certain elements of the present article could be traced back even farther, and these words came to mind:

Furthermore, GJC thanks his postdoctoral mentor Mary Lidstrom, whose HHMI-funded “biology for engineers” project (2003-07) showed him that biology could be taught like engineering.

Now fully absorbed in nostalgia, I thought back to a graduate seminar on teaching biology that I had taken in 1997. The primary text was a little paperback by Steven Krantz called How to Teach Mathematics, and it convinced young-impressionable-me that we biologists might have something to learn about education from mathematicians. Perhaps this was worth acknowledging as well?

Finally, GJC thanks his former Zoology 529 teacher, Jon Herron, for once assigning a book that helped GJC appreciate how other STEM fields can and should inform biology education.

To see the final published Acknowledgments, you’ll need to click through to the full article. (You should go there anyway, or at least to the Twitter thread, because the article addresses the important issue of aligning biology activities and assessments, and it sports the concise elegance of an essay unencumbered by actual data.)  But, regardless of the ultimate outcome, it was interesting to contemplate some variations on the usual acknowledgments. I thought again, as I often do, of Stephen Heard’s argument that we should include more personal voice in scientific articles.  And I decided that, to this end, we should collectively aim to write longer, weirder Acknowledgments sections.

In case the brilliance of this proposition is not immediately obvious, I will explain.

As you all know, the Acknowledgments are almost always a discrete section at the end of an article.  That means it can easily be written, judged, argued over, and revised with few if any ripple effects on the rest of the article. Thus, if someone includes strange acknowledgments in an otherwise great article, reviewers and editors may object, but they aren’t going to reject the entire article on that basis. At worst, they’ll say something like, “Please confine your acknowledgments to the most direct contributors to the current work.”  And sometimes they’ll go, “Oh, whatever — it’s a great piece that is good for our journal, let him thank his dog if he really wants to.”

Thus, even if the main text of our articles adheres to a rigid format to meet readers’ expectations, I claim that we have the freedom to experiment with our acknowledgments with little professional risk. So let’s make good use of that freedom! Let’s (briefly) explain how we came to study a particular species of beetle, or how we initially mistook hemoglobin for parasitism in Daphnia dentifura. While acknowledgments should always serve the purpose of acknowledging people, our reasons for thanking them need not be confined to one sentence apiece.

So, what do you all think?  Are you ready to make your acknowledgments a bit freakier?  Comment away!  Feel free, also, to remind us of your favorite past examples of unorthodox acknowledgments.

Before I end, I’d like to thank Jeremy for the opportunity to write this. And also our college cross-country coach, Pete Farwell, for creating a team environment that led to Jeremy and me becoming friends. And also….

12 thoughts on “Guest post: four drafts of Acknowledgments

  1. The acknowledgments of one of my papers start with “We thank Stephen Heard for a having written a blog post that shed an important light on our analyses and two anonymous referees for insightful comments.” It was a post on why dealing with maximum values is difficult. 🙂

  2. If you want an unorthodox acknowledgement and can excuse that it wasn’t published in a journal but rather in a computer software manual, it’s hard to find one more unorthodox than the one by Olin Shivers in 1994 in the Scsh Reference Manual:

    https://scsh.net/docu/html/man.html

  3. Yay acknowledgements! My university limited acknowledgements to one (1.5-spaced) page for dissertations. Imagine that: trying to fit 6 years’ worth of thank-yous into such a small space! I got around that by creating an extra appendix into which to fit the rest of my 3-page acknowledgements, so my dissertation both starts and ends with acknowledgements.

  4. I now put whatever I feel like into acknowledgements, including most recently my favorite coffee shop. In one of my early papers (Caswell and Werner 1978, Ecology 59:53-66) the editors limited the creativity of acknowledgments. The paper had gotten one of the most constructive reviews ever. Suggestions that we should consider transient dynamics (so we did), and consider density effects (so we did). This reviewer typed the matrices into a program and plotted results (by hand. on graph paper. remember when this was). We revised the paper, greatly improving it. In the response to reviewers, we thanked the reviewer and said if they wanted to identify themself, we would be happy to acknowledge them. The review came back saying the paper looked good and that we were very kind to offer to acknowledge. No name.

    So, we wrote an acknowledgement that said “… special thanks to an anonymous reviewer (who was that masked man?)” The editorial office took the Lone Ranger reference out. Now, I would just put it back in.

    Incidentally, I have always wondered who the reviewer was. There were not all that many people, at that point in time, with the expertise to have written as perceptive and knowledgeable a review of a paper on matrix population models.

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