The best Acknowledgements section ever

Some people ignore the Acknowledgements sections of papers, but they’re one of my favourite bits. Not because they have much to do with telling the paper’s story – they don’t – but because they can reward a reader with the kind of writing style, personality, and humour that’s otherwise in short supply in our scientific writing. My favourite Acknowledgements section of all time, though, isn’t one that’s particularly funny or beautiful. Instead, it’s one that makes a very profound point about the value of criticism. Here it is, in its entirety:

 For critical suggestions and discussion I thank [names]. Not everyone agreed with everything but even that helped (West-Eberhard 2014).

This is something I didn’t understand, early in my career: feedback on a manuscript helps the most when it comes from people who don’t agree with you. (Or from those who don’t agree with what you’ve written, which is not always the same thing; criticism is a great way to discover that what you thought you’d written doesn’t actually appear on the paper.) I hated seeing red pencil on my manuscripts, and I especially hated seeing lengthy reviews come back on papers I’d submitted.

Dreading criticism is a huge mistake, of course. It can be tempting to send your manuscripts to a colleague who will correct your spelling and grammar while saying only good things about the bones of your manuscript, but what you should really want is a colleague who’ll be genuinely critical, willing to raise issues requiring hard work of you as the author. Such criticism is an invaluable source of writing help – even, perhaps especially, when it comes from people who don’t agree with what you’ve written. If this seems obvious to you, that’s great – you’ve taken a step that took me quite a while.

The value of criticism is particularly easy to forget when it comes from peer reviewers and journal editors, because these people play two roles when they’re dealing with your manuscript. They’re providing advice on how to improve your manuscript, but they’re also acting as gatekeepers, allowing or preventing the publication you’re seeking. It’s a common and natural mistake to focus on the gatekeeping role, and forget about the manuscript-improvement role. And not just for scientists: the vampire novelist Anne Rice once read a reader’s suggestion online that one of her novels had needed an editor’s hand. She responded:

 I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself. I fought a great battle to achieve a status where I did not have to put up with editors making demands on me.

Despite Rice’s self-confidence, the brilliance of her unedited prose has not yet been recognized by a Nobel Prize for Literature. Neither has my own prose, of course, and it never will, but it’s been hugely improved by an army of reviewers and editors.

There’s one more point one can draw from my favourite Acknowledgements section: a lesson for how to be a good reviewer. When you criticize a manuscript, you needn’t hold back (although you should of course always be polite and constructive*). However, you should criticize not to justify rejection, but to drive improvement. (Sure, a rejection might result; but if it does, your criticism can help the author submit a stronger revision to a new journal.) Your goal as a reviewer should be to wind up in an Acknowledgements section like West-Eberhard’s – one in which the author includes you in thanks that are more than just the formality of “We are grateful to 3 anonymous reviewers for comments”. I’m proud to have pulled this off a few times; it’s one way I can repay the debt I owe to my own reviewers.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) February 15, 2016

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This post is based in part on material from The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook for scientific writers. You can learn more about it here.


*^It’s true that some reviewers don’t understand this. I once submitted a manuscript reporting some limited but (I think) interesting natural-history data. One reviewer wrote, anonymously, that they wouldn’t have given my manuscript a passing grade in their undergraduate Introduction to Ecology course. Nothing more – they didn’t explain what they thought was wrong, or how they thought it might be improved! The editor should never even have passed this “review” on to me; but fortunately, I was too stubborn to give up, and I sent the manuscript to another (better) journal. It was accepted with a few minor revisions, and now I have a funny story to put in a footnote.

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13 thoughts on “The best Acknowledgements section ever

  1. Jason Hehir

    A very even handed and insightful piece. I think you’re right about most people, perhaps even the reviewers themselves, forgetting about the quality improvement aspect of the process.

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  2. testingthewaters

    The most amusing Acknowledgements section I’ve come across takes an almost opposite stance. After the usual thanking of reviewers and funding sources, it ends:

    Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy, although they should.

    From:

    Woese, C. R., & Goldenfeld, N. (2009). How the microbial world saved evolution from the scylla of molecular biology and the charybdis of the modern synthesis. Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, 73(1), 14-21.

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  3. Chris Norment

    Here’s a sentence from what I think of as one of the most interesting Acknowledgement sections ever, from a paper by Terborgh and Weske 1975 (Ecology 62:562-576): “The first-named author’s life was saved in a grueling ordeal of emergency by the extraordinary exertions of several unnamed Campa Indians and four Peruvian assistants: Klaus Wehr, Manuel Sanchez, Erasmo Guerra, and Moro Vasquez.”

    One of the interesting things about this Acknowledgement section is that the authors never explain the backstory – a plane crash in the jungle. Someone who reads this sentence wants to know what happened – of course.

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  4. Catherine Scott (@Cataranea)

    Great post, Stephen! An important reminder that reviewers ought to be focusing on providing comments that can help improve the paper. I’ve found it very frustrating to get reviews back that are all criticism and no helpful suggestions (I had one that was a several page rant about everything I’d gotten wrong about the reviewer’s previous work). I have little experience as a reviewer thus far, but even when I’ve seen manuscripts that I think may be rejected, I try to focus my comments on specific changes the authors could make that would help make the paper better. Most of the comments I’ve gotten from reviewers have helped me to improve the final paper. The one reviewer comment I will always (fondly!) remember: “I liked the paper very much”
    (after which they made lots of critical but constructive comments). It is amazing how much a short sentence like this can contribute to making criticism less painful to accept!!

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Catherine – over my career, I’ve had a few of the no-suggestions reviews, but the good news is they’ve been far outnumbered by the helpful ones. YMMV, of course.

      I agree with you about “I liked the paper very much”. In fact, I just finished hitting “submit” on a review, with a recommendation to reject, but praising several aspects of the manuscript (it was wonderfully well written, for one thing). I expect the authors will still be disappointed, but I hope it will ease the sting.

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  5. Jeremy Fox

    Hmm…don’t know that I buy the idea that you criticize to help the author improve the ms, not to justify rejection. Peer reviews serve multiple purposes. One is to help authors improve their mss–but another is to assist editors in their decision making. And particularly for selective journals, most of those decisions are going to be “reject”. Not that as a reviewer you set out looking for reasons to reject a ms! But like it or not, one purpose of your review is to advise the editor, and your advice needs to be justified with evidence and arguments. And honestly, I don’t think it’s feasible or desirable to save your evaluation for your confidential comments to the editor, and stick to discussing improvements in your comments to the author. Your comments to the editor should reflect and summarize your comments to the author (though obviously you don’t tell authors what your recommended decision was).

    In practice, I don’t see much tension between these two roles of reviews. Why can’t a review both evaluate the ms (including evaluating how good it could be if revised appropriately), and suggest ways to improve it? Even if your concern is with the tone of the review rather than the content, I don’t really see the tension here. You just write as one professional addressing another, both for purposes of evaluating the ms and suggesting improvements.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I thought this looked like an argument, which would be very meta of you given https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/02/15/why-dont-we-have-good-arguments-in-the-comments-any-more/! But in fact I think you’re just letting me lead you slightly astray about my meaning. Of course I agree that a review needs to evaluate the manuscript. As an editor I depend on that. And I hope I didn’t suggest putting that evaluation only in the comments to the editor. But a good review doesn’t just evaluate the paper; it points towards improvement. That’s just as true if the review recommends rejection – because as an editor I may not; and because even if I do, the manuscript will go somewhere else. So both for local (current journal) and global (whatever journal it ends up in) purposes, the manuscript improvement function is important. I agree with you that a review can and should serve both purposes; but I don’t think reviewers need any nudging to criticize manuscripts. (My manuscripts rarely get sycophantic reviews… maybe I’m doing something wrong?) I think they do need some nudging to point to avenues for improvement.

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  6. sleather2012

    No arguments from me Steve 🙂 Like Jeremy though, as an Editor I do like to see some criticisms in the review to help me reject it (if the reviewer is suggesting it). Worst cases are those reviewers who say reject in the confidential bit o Editor and praise the paper in their review to authors! I always take note of the reviewer comments as find them very useful (most of the time).

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