Amazing Acknowledgements in Academic Papers

Almost every academic paper in any discipline will feature some variation on the following in a footnote:

I gratefully acknowledge [so and so] for their assistance/comments/support.

Yawn. But hang on, very occasionally these rarely-read footnotes contain something a little more interesting.

Perhaps the boldest of all comes from a group of French researchers, who “do not gratefully thank” a reviewer of their paper for his “useless and very mean comments”.

Don't sleep in late.

Don’t sleep in late.

Academics are not generally an aggressive bunch, and many of these hidden acknowledgments are a little more light-hearted. One Kara Miller at Oxford is called out for sleeping in late, selfishly leaving a couple of the authors bored. Biyu J., a Chinese researcher based in the US thanked:

the U.S. Immigration Service under the Bush administration, whose visa background security check forced her to spend two months (followi
ng an international conference) in a third country, free of routine obligations—it was during this time that the hypothesis presented herein was initially conjectured.


Tut tut Ministry of University and Research

Understandably, the subject of research funding often raises the ire of academics. An Italian researcher gave the Italian Ministry of University and Research its own ‘Unacknowledgements’ section to call them out on their failure to hand over the cash they promised. One British author took it even further, wishing the British Arts and Humanities Research Board “a plague on their house”.

Presumable Slayer is good writing music.

Presumably Slayer is good writing music.

Some researchers claim divine inspiration for their work, such as in this paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where the authors thank John Frum, while others get their inspiration from the heavy metal band Slayer and Italian pornstar R. Siffredi.

American evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen, who was “considered unconventional even by eccentrics”,1 thanked the National Science Foundation for “regularly rejecting my (honest) grant applications for work on real organisms, thus forcing me into theoretical work”.

unacknowledgements10 theoretical

Thanks guys!

Meanwhile a couple of Barcelona fans working in the US managed to sneak a football chant into their paper:

Are there any that I’ve missed?

  1. ‘Leigh Van Valen, evolutionary theorist and paleobiology pioneer, 1935-2010’

Co-authoring: Now with 60% more croquet!

Co-authoring papers can be an enriching and enlightening academic experience. It can also be a complete nightmare. This post is your complete guide for navigating the process.1

Step One: finding a co-author
First things first, ensure that you are authoring your paper with a living, human academic. Living human academics are more responsive than dead humans and non-human animals, albeit only marginally.

Step Two: write a paper
Easy as ABC.

Step Three: agreeing on author order
Once you have written your collaborative masterpiece, you will face the biggest challenge of the process: determining author order. If you have a borderline personality disorder, you can probably get away with taking all the credit for yourself, but for the rest of us some well-established procedures apply. A comprehensive review of all papers published between 1974-1998 which openly disclose the method used to determine author order (2 papers) reveals that there are 2 established methods for determining author order:

  1. Croquet.
  2. Proximity to tenure decisions.

Determination of author order, method #1: Croquet
The traditional method, as described by Hassell & May (1974),2 is a croquet tournament, described as follows:

The order of authorship was determined from a twenty-five-game croquet series held at Imperial College Field Station during summer 1973.

Not described in the paper are the somewhat underhand methods used by Hassell & May to ensure their victory in such tournaments:3

Croquet was played every lunch time during May’s summer visits on a pitch customised by a large population of rabbits. Visitors were invited to play though inevitably lost due to the huge home-team advantage knowledge of the pitch’s precise topography afforded. Visitors also frequently declared themselves disadvantaged by the alleged tactic of being asked complex ecological questions mid-stroke. This was a different game from the traditional English vicarage-lawn contest!

If you are not au fait with croquet,4 you can learn all about this “curious ancient pastime” from Joseph Strutt’s seminal 1801 book,5 concisely titled:

The Sports And Pastimes Of The People Of England From The Earliest Period, Including The Rural And Domestic Recreations, May Games, Mummeries, Pageants, Processions And Pompous Spectacles, Illustrated By Reproductions From Ancient Paintings In Which Are Represented Most Of The Popular Diversions

Or you can just read the Wikipedia article.6

A Curious and Ancient Pastime

A Curious and Ancient Pastime

If your university happens to have a field station, your task is made much easier. Likewise, if you live in the UK, you may find that your university already has a croquet club – Oxford, Cambridge and Nottingham seem to be leading the way. Wherever you go, make sure that you do not play next to a cricket field for health and safety reasons.

Early example of the Croquet Method in use. The scholars pictured are presumably using a croquet tournament to settle the order of authorship on their latest collaborative paper discussing postmodernism in feminist theory. Harper's Weekly 10 (September 10, 1866) p.568.

Early example of the Croquet Method in use. The scholars pictured are using a croquet tournament to settle the order of authorship on their latest collaborative paper discussing postmodernism in feminist theory.7 Harper’s Weekly 10 (September 10, 1866) p.568.

If you live do not live somewhere sufficiently civilised to have a croquet club you should consider moving. Otherwise you can fashion your own croquet set. This is very easy and you can customise your kit to represent the game of croquet played in Alice in Wonderland. To further the effect, it is a good idea to dress as Alice during the tournament.

A group of academics going 'Full Alice'.

A group of academics going ‘Full Alice’.

It is difficult to estimate the prevalence of the croquet method. However, studies show that “croquet players are on the whole wealthy people”,8 which is at odds with the remuneration generally provided to academics. At least one participant in the aforementioned study noted the presence of academics, lending some credence to the method. Just don’t take it too seriously as9

Croquet is usually stereotyped as a genteel game, less a sport than a social function, and more suited to genial conversation and unfettered flirtation than strident competition 

Determination of author order, method #2: Proximity to tenure decisions
Winning the award for academic honesty are Roderick and Gillespie (2002),10 who admit that:

Order of authorship was determined by proximity to tenure decisions.

Perhaps less sophisticated than croquet, but hey, everybody wants to be loved tenured. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this approach is substantiated by the literature. In one survey of 127 papers, 4 determined author order by proximity to tenure decisions, i.e. about 3%.11 I’d like to bet the true figure is much higher.

Step Three: remember to credit all authors and don’t spell their names wrong So you’ve found some human co-authors, written your masterpiece and completed your croquet odyssey. Now all you have to do is credit all your authors. Sounds easy, but sometimes you might have 4 or 5 authors. Or 90.12 Or 2924.13 “But I would never forget an author, and I am so careful with spelling!”, I hear you protest across the ether. I am sure that Ms. L.L. Chen and Mr. C. Hui would have said exactly the same. That is until they completely forgot about their poor third co-author, one, Z.S. Lin. In the same fashion, this bunch managed to overlook no fewer than 5 authors in their Nature paper on ‘The zebrafish reference genome sequence and its relationship to the human genome’. They also spelt a number of names wrong and mixed up their funding sources! They at least realised their error reasonably quickly. Presumably one or more of the ‘forgotten five’14 opened up their latest issue of Nature with all the urgency and anticipation of a child unwrapping presents at Christmas, ready to see their name in the leading journal of their field, a recognition of their fantastic contributions to science… only to find they were not credited. Not sure what happened then with this paper in Ecology Letters, where it took 2 years to notice that a couple of co-authors were missing.

Damming evidence of co-author amnesia.

Damming evidence of co-author amnesia.

Finally, if you are given the opportunity to transliterate author names to Chinese, make sure you don’t inadvertently write a co-author’s name as 韦小宝. Unless of course that co-author is, in fact, a demi-Emperor, son of a prostitute, with 8 wives.

Thanks to @ProfLiJin for the translation!

Thanks to @ProfLiJin for the translation!

So there you have it. Happy collaborating!

  1. Not really complete, nor a guide.
  2. Hassell, M.P. & May, R.M., ‘Aggregation of predators and insect parasites and its effect on stability’ (1974) 43 Journal of Animal Ecology 567-594.
  3. Godfray, C., ‘Hassell, M. P. & May, R. M. (1973)’ (British Ecology Society, 100 Influential Papers series no. 13, 2013)
  4. I’m a poet, and I didn’t even realise
  5. Strutt, J., The Sports And Pastimes Of The People Of England From The Earliest Period (London Methuen, London, 1801)
  6. For those interested in further study, the Journal of Sport History kindly provides access to some further reading, including: Sterngass, J., ‘Cheating, Gender Roles, and the Nineteenth-Century Croquet Craze’ (1998) 25(3) Journal of Sport History 398-418 (pdf); and Lewis, R. M., ‘American Croquet in the 1860s: Playing the Game and Winning’ (1991) 18(3) Journal of Sport History 365-386 (pdf).
  7. Probably.
  8. Carter, K., ‘A Survey of Croquet Players’ (Profundus Consulting, April 2007)
  9. Sterngass, J., ‘Cheating, Gender Roles, and the Nineteenth-Century Croquet Craze’ (1998) 25(3) Journal of Sport History 398-418
  10. Roderick, G. K. & Gillespie, R. G., ‘Speciation and phylogeography of Hawaiian terrestrial arthropods’ (1998) Molecular Ecology 7(4) 519–531
  11. Hart, R., ‘Co-authorship in the academic library literature: A survey of attitudes and behaviors’ (2000) 26(5) The Journal of Academic Librarianship 339–345
  12.  Keith R Bradnam, Joseph N Fass, Anton Alexandrov, Paul Baranay, Michael Bechner, Inanç Birol, Sébastien Boisvert, Jarrod A Chapman, Guillaume Chapuis, Rayan Chikhi, Hamidreza Chitsaz, Wen-Chi Chou, Jacques Corbeil,Cristian Del Fabbro, T Roderick Docking, Richard Durbin, Dent Earl, Scott Emrich,Pavel Fedotov, Nuno A Fonseca, Ganeshkumar Ganapathy, Richard A Gibbs,Sante Gnerre, Élénie Godzaridis, Steve Goldstein, Matthias Haimel, Giles Hall,David Haussler, Joseph B Hiatt, Isaac Y Ho, Jason Howard, Martin Hunt, Shaun D Jackman, David B Jaffe, Erich D Jarvis, Huaiyang Jiang, Sergey Kazakov, Paul J Kersey, Jacob O Kitzman, James R Knight, Sergey Koren, Tak-Wah Lam,Dominique Lavenier, François Laviolette, Yingrui Li, Zhenyu Li, Binghang Liu, Yue Liu, Ruibang Luo, Iain MacCallum, Matthew D MacManes, Nicolas Maillet, Sergey Melnikov, Delphine Naquin, Zemin Ning, Thomas D Otto,Benedict Paten, Octávio S Paulo, Adam M Phillippy, Francisco Pina-Martins,Michael Place, Dariusz Przybylski, Xiang Qin, Carson Qu, Filipe J Ribeiro,Stephen Richards, Daniel S Rokhsar, J Graham Ruby, Simone Scalabrin,Michael C Schatz, David C Schwartz, Alexey Sergushichev, Ted Sharpe, Timothy I Shaw, Jay Shendure, Yujian Shi, Jared T Simpson, Henry Song, Fedor Tsarev, Francesco Vezzi, Riccardo Vicedomini, Bruno M Vieira, Jun Wang, Kim C Worley, Shuangye Yin, Siu-Ming Yiu, Jianying Yuan, Guojie Zhang, Hao Zhang, Shiguo Zhou and Ian F Korf, ‘Assemblathon 2: evaluating de novo methods of genome assembly in three vertebrate species’ (2013) 2(1) GigaScience
  13. Obviously not going to reproduce 24 pages of author names. But you can count them for yourself: Aad, G. et al. et al. et al al al., ‘The ATLAS Experiment at the CERN Large Hadron Collider’ (2008) Journal of the Institute of Physics Publishing
  14. ‘The Forgotten Five’ also happens to be the name of a piece of One Direction fan fiction in which the “band named one direction go down in a plane crash and wind up back at their flat as ghost and realize someone buys the house they do whatever they can to get them out” (sic – the whole blurb)

“Who’s a clever boy?” Animals in academia

Animals are all over academia, from the long suffering lab rats to levitating frogs. But one wouldn’t expect our furry and feathered friends to be appearing as authors on published peer-reviewed papers. Take, for example, this fascinating paper entitled ‘Detection of earth rotation with a diamagnetically levitating gyroscope‘. All looks quite normal, until you see that the second author is H.A.M.S. ter Tisha. I.e. A hamster named Tisha. Author one, Dr. Geim, is the only academic to win both an Ig Nobel Prize and a real Nobel Prize, and author two is his pet hamster. No explanation has been advanced for this, but Dr. Geim, responsible for the aforementioned levitating frogs, is clearly quite a character.

In a similar vein, one F.D.C. Willard has published as both a co-author and, unbelievably, as sole author, on low temperature physics. F.D.C. Willard is the ‘pen name’ of Chester, the companion of Jack H. Hetherington, an American physicist and mathematician. The story goes that a colleague of Hetherington’s reviewed a paper for him and said that all was good, except for the fact he was using a lot of the ‘royal we’, a bugbear of the targeted journal. Rather than correct his grammar, Hetherington decided to add a second author instead. Concerned that his colleagues would recognise the name, a pen name was conjured: F.D. for Felis domestics, C for Chester, and Willard after the cat that sired him. The joint paper was published in Physical Review Letters in 1973.

Shortly thereafter a visitor to (the university) asked to talk to me, and since I was unavailable asked to talk with Willard. Everyone laughed and soon the cat was out of the bag. 

When the article reprints arrived, Hetherington inked Chester’s paw and sent a few signed copies to friends, and,

after most interest had died down, one to an (at the time) unknown physicist at Grenoble. He later told me that at a meeting to decide who to invite to a conference someone said “why don’t we invite Willard, he never gets invited anywhere.” He showed the reprint and everyone agreed that it seemed to be a cat paw signature. Willard never got invited and neither did I.

A copy of the paper, signed by F.D.C. Willard himself.

A copy of the paper, signed by F.D.C. Willard himself.

Some years later, Willard had learned French and was now publishing on his own, as evidenced by his paper ‘L’hélium 3 solide : un antiferromagnétisme nucléaire’ in La Recherche. In fact the real authors were bickering about how to present the ideas in the paper, such that not one of them was willing to sign the finished product. Instead they put F.D.C. Willard as the sole author, thus cementing this cats place in academia history.

Chester, aka. F.D.C. Willard

Chester, aka. F.D.C. Willard

Willard was considered for a position at the University, and in honour of his contribution to physics, APS Journals announced this year1 that all feline-authored publications would be made open access, noting that “not since Schrödinger has there been an opportunity like this for cats in physics”.

Willard is not the only cat to have unwittingly signed another’s work. Emir Filipović from the University of Sarajevo was trawling through the Dubrovnik State Archives when he stumbled upon a medieval Italian manuscript (dated 11 March 1445) marked with four very clear cat paw prints.

Proof that cats have been walking over important stuff for at least the last 500 years.

Proof that cats have been walking over important stuff for at least the last 500 years.

If you are more of a dog person, which you should be, you may be more interested in the tale of Galadriel Mirkwood, co-author of a 1978 biology paper. You may notice that Galadriel Mirkwood is the name of an Elf in Lord of the Rings, but it is also the nickname of an Afghan Hound belonging to Polly Matzinger (quite a character herself).

Pam Galadriel mirkwood

Polly and Galadriel

While partly also a tool for grammatical convenience,2 it seems that Matzinger’s inclusion of a canine author isn’t completely without merit. While working on her well-known danger model of immunology she suddenly realised that dendritic cells behave in the same way as a sheepdog. When being considered for tenure, the canine co-author question arose. Fortunately, Matzinger’s superiors, could take a joke:3

They decided it wasn’t really fraud. It was a real dog, a frequent lab visitor, and they said it had done no less research than some other coauthors had.

Despite not including any dogs as co-authors for some time, Polly remains an avid sheepdog trainer and along with her two Border Collies, Charlie and Lily, was part of the US team at the 2005 World Sheepdog Finals.4

To finish off, I shall leave you with Rosco, the super cute PhD cat.5

Rosco the PhD cat checking out his kit.

Rosco the PhD cat checking out his kit.

  1. April 1st, of course.
  2. Anton, Ted. Bold Science: Seven Scientists Who Are Changing Our World (W.H. Freeman, New York 2000).
  3. ‘Scientific Sins’, The Scientist (May 5, 2003)
  4. As described in the documentary Death by Design: Where Parallel Worlds Meet (1997)
  5. My favourite comment on that post: “seriously? you’re getting a PhD in engineering and you have time to take pictures of your cat?”.