Thursday, November 22, 2012

A call, on Thanksgiving, for unrestricted References and Acknowledgements sections for papers

On this Thanksgiving 2012 I am calling for a change in the way we acknowledge the contributions of others to our academic work.  We all stand upon the shoulders of those who have come before us.  And in the digital age we have the power to track much more completely what prior work has contributed to ours and also what people have helped along the way who are not reflected in author lists.  It is time for journals to do more to record these contributions.  So I am making a call here for a few simple things we can all do in this regard:

1. Reference EVERYTHING you can in your works if it is relevant.  

Use a computer program for some of your work?  Make sure you cite the program in some way.  Use some data as a key part of your analyses?  Cite the source of the data.  (For example, in my area people are really bad about citing genome data).  Got an idea from some paper about how to do an analysis?  Cite that paper.  I find it absurd that some journals arbitrarily restrict the number of citations one can use in a paper.  Sure, don't overcite things that are trivial.  Don't overcite yourself either.  But cite everything that matters.

2. Write complete and detailed Acknowledgement sections.  

Describe in as much detail as possible whomever contributed in some way to the work.  Sure, in printed papers a long Acknowledgement section may be a bit much.  But this is the web era.  Many journals already have online methods sections that are longer than those in the printed version.  It is time to do the same thing for Acknowledgements.  

3. Annotate in detail the contributions of authors on a paper.  

Most journals (at least in the sciences) now have a section on "Author's Contributions" although some of them have arbitrary categories one is supposed to use.  Don't follow those silly categories.  Write a section that details what authors ACTUALLY did and put it in your paper.  Many journals will allow one to replace the arbitrary categories with one's own text.  

It is by detailing the actual contributions to one's work that we can really show the spirit of Thanksgiving in academic work. 


  1. Excellent suggestion.

    ... of course, there are journals, include those of PLOS, that already have unrestricted everything -- not just references and acknowledgements, but illustrations, tables, supplementary files, main text, appendices. And
    that is how it really should be in 2012.

    1. Well, it may be allowed but people need to actually DO IT ... many do not

  2. But of course all this material in a CLOSED journal will "belong to the the publisher" so can't be re-used. We can't build citation or acknowledgement graphs without getting the "publisher's permission". Yes, this is 2012 but the social mores of publishers are years behind.

    1. Yes, certainly, publishing ANYTHING in a closed access journal is inane ...

  3. A great example of citing *everything* is Doug Kell's BMC Medicinal Genomics paper:

    Iron behaving badly: inappropriate iron chelation as a major contributor to the aetiology of vascular and other progressive inflammatory and degenerative diseases

    I know I've been touting this paper about a bit. But it's really interesting: 2469 references! Why don't more 'review' papers cite 1000+ papers? It seems to me that most papers claiming to be 'reviews' cite only a very tiny fraction of the relevant literature. More like this please!

    PS props to the DataCite initiative encouraging Data Citation

    and the Science Code Manifesto: that states that researchers *must* cite all software used or adapted in the course of research


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