No thanks? Victims of acknowledgement abuse ‘defenceless’

Tougher action is needed to stop researchers dishonestly using spurious credits to bolster the credibility of their papers, says academic

October 1, 2020
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Receiving an effusive thank-you from a colleague or collaborator in the acknowledgements section of an academic paper may seem like an unlikely cause for complaint.

But a new study raises the question of whether these heartfelt expressions of gratitude are, in some cases, an “abusive” and “unethical” way to fraudulently imply a paper has the blessing of someone who, in fact, has not read the research.

In extreme cases, those who have actively raised concerns about studies have found themselves listed in acknowledgements, according to Mladen Koljatic, from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.

His study describes the case of a female researcher – Maria – who had asked to be removed as co-author from a paper in a prestigious journal after spotting several errors in its analysis. Despite explicitly stating that she did not want to be mentioned in the paper, Maria was later credited in the acknowledgements section with “participating in the planning and execution of the project” and the project being “her idea originally”. “The work would not have been completed without her abundant knowledge, experience and guidance,” the paper added.

Her request for her name to be deleted from the paper was ignored by the journal’s editor, Dr Koljatic explains, leading her to write to the title’s editorial board and then the publishing company, which eventually removed the credit without explanation.

While these infractions may seem “minor” and “harmless”, the sense of coercion felt by Maria illustrated how damaging these abuses can be, says Dr Koljatic.

Writing in Research Ethics, Dr Koljatic says that victims of “unconsenting acknowledgements” are “virtually defenceless”, particularly because the abuse happened in the “seemingly innocuous acknowledgements section”, which is “traditionally conceived as a venue for scholarly courtesy”.

Those academics like Maria “find themselves as simple pawns, used and taken advantage of by others who control the game”, he writes, adding that “in most cases…the article is already published and there is little they can do about it”.

“Acknowledgement abuse may appear at first sight as a relatively minor transgression compared to coerced or hostage authorship, yet the emotional impact of acknowledgement abuse should not be understated,” he adds.

While it is difficult to assess the prevalence of acknowledgement abuse, Dr Koljatic says it could be “fairly easy” to prevent this issue if authors were required to obtain consent in the same way as they were asked to get permissions for use of extended quotations or materials protected by copyright. “The burden is on the authors to secure consents from all they wish to acknowledge,” he says.


Print headline: More ‘abuse’ than thank-you?

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