Monday, July 4, 2016

The Snarky, Clever Comments Hidden in the "Acknowledgments" of Academic Papers

By Meredith Carpenter and Lillian Fritz-Laylin
In a modern scientific paper, if you cruise past the “Materials and Methods” section and stop right before you hit the “References,” you’ll find the “Acknowledgments” section, wherein authors are given space to thank others for their contributions to the project. It is generally accepted that this paragraph is ignored by both readers and reviewers alike. Accordingly, it is chock full of inside jokes, snarky comments, and general silliness. Here, for your enjoyment, are a few of our favorite examples.
Sticking it to the man
Most current academic science is, at least in part, supported financially (if not intellectually) by the public. In the United States, this is often through the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation and typically involves many grant rejections. As a result, some scientists use the Acknowledgements section of their manuscripts as public venue in which to vent their frustration at the government:
“B.J.H. would also like to thank the U.S. Immigration Service under the Bush administration, whose visa background security check forced her to spend two months (following an international conference) in a third country, free of routine obligations—it was during this time that the hypothesis presented herein was initially conjectured.”
"I thank the National Science Foundation for regularly rejecting my (honest) grant applications for work on real organisms (cf. Szent-Gyorgyi, 1972), thus forcing me into theoretical work."
“This work was ostensibly supported by the Italian Ministry of University and Research. … The Ministry however has not paid its dues and it is not known whether it will ever do.”
How order of authorship was really determined
In some scientific disciplines, authors are listed alphabetically, whereas in others, authorship order is supposed to reflect the amount of work that went into the project. In those fields, the success of grant applications and tenure decisions can often rest on the order of authorship. In these cases, the most coveted positions are first author—traditionally the person who did the majority of the experiments—and last author, who (at least in theory) was the intellectual driving force behind the project. As in any human endeavor, there is much jockeying for position, and sometimes scientists resort to less-traditional means of resolving conflicts:
“Order of authorship was determined by proximity to tenure decisions.”
“Order of authorship was determined from a 25-game croquet series held at Imperial College Field station during summer 1973.”
Thanking fictional people
Some authors use the Acknowledgements as a place to hide “Easter eggs”—in these cases, seemingly innocuous thanks to imaginary people with names obscure enough to get past both reviewers and editorial staff:
“We thank Jim Coloso and Laura Smith who collected much of the data shown here and Jim Hodgson, Jon Frum for inspiration in writing this paper.”

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