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Location: Kyoto and Auckland
Work interests: research, editing, science communication
Affiliation/website: National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka
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Contact: email = researchcooperative-at-gmail-dot-com
Favourite publications: Various, and especially the open access versions of older journals with effective review systems

Founding Member

Work: ethnobotany, prehistory, museum curation
Affiliations: 1996-present: National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka. 1995: Freelance editor, Kyoto. 1994: JSPS Research Visitor, Kyoto University, Kyoto. 1993: Research Visitor, Australian National University, Canberra. 1991: Visiting Researcher, National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka.1990: STA Fellow, National Institute for Ornamental Plants, Vegetables, and Tea (NIVOT), Ano, Japan
Contact: National Museum of Ethnology, Senri Expo Park, Suita City, Osaka, Japan 565-8511
Biographical: Established the Research Cooperative in 2001
Favourite Publications: Various

Academic writing and acknowledging contributors

user image 2016-12-25
By: Research Cooperative
Posted in: Writing

Consider the following questions.

  • How should we acknowledge sources and contributors in our research? What is fair; what is necessary?
  • Does making acknowledgments dilute the academic standing that writers seek for themselves and their supporting institutions?
  • How do we negotiate authorship when more than one person is involved in the research, and when more than one person is involved in the actual writing? Do we include the 'authors' of research as well as the authors of the paper?

Questions about sources, attribution, authority, and authorship form an active area of discussion on the internet, and at universities with strong research and teaching programmes. My own perspective, below, is rather broad and anthropological.

Research acknowledgments - and structural limitations on academic writing

Here is how Pliny acknowledged his sources, in the preface to his encyclopedia, Naturalis Historia (Natural History) published in circa AD 77-79:

'I have prefaced these volumes with the names of my authorities. I have done so because it is, in my opinion, a pleasant thing and one that shows an honourable modesty, to own up to those who were the means of one's achievements...'

Most publications owe their existence to many different people and organisations. Contributions can be made in many different ways, before, during and after the actual research has taken place, and during the writing process. For some publications, very few people are involved other than the author, and acknowledging contributions is a simple matter.

When many people are involved, acknowledging contributions is not always simple. Difficulties may arise because of writing conventions and formal limitations on the content and structure of academic writing.

Most academic or scientific papers have a fairly predictable, formal structure, and follow a series of written or unwritten rules or conventions. Academic journals and publishers have 'house rules' or 'author guidelines' that make the rules and conventions explicit. These are very important for maintaining academic standards, and also make it easier for readers to focus on content and meaning after becoming familiar with the conventions.

Author guidelines and house rules

Experimental research papers often have the same basic structure:

Title, Author(s), Author affiliation(s), Abstract, Keywords, Introduction, Materials and Methods, Discussion, Conclusions, Acknowledgments, References, Appendices

Depending on the rules of each publisher, different kinds of contribution can be acknowledged in different places, namely:

1. the identification and sequence of authors and coauthors
2. notes on author affiliations
3. introductory comments
4. personal communications cited in the text
5. unpublished notes and data cited in the text
6. references cited in the text
7. acknowledgments

In the social sciences, footnotes are often also used, and these can also include various kinds of acknowledgment.

Some publishers do not permit the citing of personal communications and unpublished notes or data. When someone is cited in a personal communication, only the name and date may be given, within the text or in a footnote. Some authors identify the source of a pers. comm. more fully in the acknowledgments, noting the person's job description, institutional affiliation, and role or relationship to the author. All of this information can be used to establish the authority of the person being cited, and to make their contribution more clear to readers.

Contributions and contributors, authors and coauthors

A wide range of possible contributions and contributors are indicated in the categories below. If you can suggest further categories, please tell us.

1. Authorship
By authors and coauthors. Many universities offer guidelines about who should or should not be recognised as authors and coauthors (see Bibliography below).

2. Advice and discussion
Advisors and discussants who have helped in obtaining, recording, or interpreting information may be research colleagues, formally appointed advisors, informally adopted advisors, supervisors, technicians, editors, and others.
Ethical advice may be provided by a university or government ethics committee for example, or a private organisation that represents certain stakeholders.

3. Initiating research and project motivations
The author or someone else may be primarily responsible for initiating the research being published. How a research project began, and the people involved, can be described in the introduction, in a footnote, or in the final acknowledgements. Even if it is not possible to identify a single starting point, it should be possible to explain the main motivations for a project, and the people involved.
It is surprising how often motivations are not made clear, even when private commercial motivations are not involved. When publishing some kinds of research, the authors or their sponsors might not want private commercial interests to be revealed.

4. Supervision
Supervisors may be student supervisors, project supervisors, or government agencies and private stakeholders who have some kind of authority over a project. Not all kinds of supervision involve discussion and interpretion of the actual research.

5. Financial support
Granting agencies, foundations, trusts, private companies, not-for-profit organisations (NPOs), relatives, or the researcher him- or herself, and other funding sources may provide scholarships, living expenses or research money.
It is usual for greater academic status to be associated with non-personal sources because obtaining them implies that some kind of objective assessment has been made of the researcher's abilities and the quality of the research.
For this reason, family and friends are often not achnowledged, except where convention permits this in the dedication of a book or thesis. In the latter contexts, it is usually understood that a large component of personal time and effort may be involved, and that near-family may deserve some acknowledgement.

6. Personal support
Personal or private supporters such as family and friends often provide encouraging words, food, housing, transport, and other practical assistance. Such support can be seen as moral encouragement because it shows social acceptance for research efforts that are often carried out in relative solitude. If and how personal support is acknowledged in publication follows from considerations similar to those noted above for financial assistance.

7. Help and information from field sources - usually non-academic.
In field-based research (i.e. research conducted in places and social situations where the researcher is an outsider) guides, informants, interpreters, and others are often sources of oral information, or may provide practical demonstrations of various kinds of activity. Other communities within academia itself can be fields for some kinds of research, so field sources are not necessarily non-academic.

8. Providing archival information and materials.
For many kinds of research and writing, essential help is provided by archivists, librarians, and research assistants working in libraries and other archives. Even though this is their expected role, the people and institutions involved should be acknowledged if they have been important for a research or writing project, and if the writer wishes to give back support for support given.

9. Permissions and permits.
For various aspects of research and writing, permissions and permits may have been obtained from public and private authorities. Some examples are national park managers, government research and security agencies, university authorities, community leaders, and the leaders of companies and other organisations.

10. Writing services - academic editing, proofreading, translation, etc.
When writing services are requested and paid for as a commercial transaction, it can be argued that no public acknowledgement is required because money has been paid. However, in order to do their job well, editors and translators often need to think deeply about what they are reading. If they are familiar with the research subject or related fields, then it should be no surprise if they offer ideas and information that are significant for the content and interpretation of research. Such intellectual contributions should be acknowledged out of respect for the contributors, and so that others can properly judge the contributions of authors. In fact, a good writer will be open to non-trivial suggestions from any direction, will make his or her own judgements about all suggestions, and will acknowledge the help received privately or in the publication.


The present mini-review of possible contributions and contributors is meant to illustrate the social reality of how research is done and published. Many contributions and contributors are never acknowledged for logistical reasons. Because the overall space available for a hard-copy publication is always limited, authors and publishers must also place limits on each component of the publication. This is also true for online publications that are subject to editorial control, even though though physical space and weight are not limiting factors. Allocating space to acknowledgements is a matter of balance as well as cost, and priorities must vary for different kinds of contribution.

A few basic rules

My own opinion is that authors are generally not inclusive enough. Perhaps three very basic or general rules can be recommended:

(i) Authors should be as inclusive as possible - as far as space and publishing rules permit, and with consideration for balance, fairness, and the particular importance of each contribution.

(ii) Readers should be able to learn something about all significant contributors, especially when the contributions might otherwise be assumed to come from the author or authors.

(iii) Readers should be able to recognise the academic and social contexts in which research and writing were conducted. Making acknowledgements is an important contribution to the description of methods, from the start to finish of a research project.

Why are the contexts important?

Providing information about academic and social contexts is important because it can help future readers find starting points for exploring and verifying the research reported... even if there were good ethical reasons for not being completely explicit about all aspects of context.

In anthropology for example, exactly where research was conducted, and the real names of informants, are often not stated. This is done out of respect for the privacy of informants and local communities, and should be accompanied by a statement explaining that aliases have been used. Even in this kind of work, informants and communities can be thanked and acknowledged without being named, or by using aliases that become known through contact with the authors.

Only in the (fictional) International Online Journal of Acknowledgements might we find that more attention is paid to the contributors than contributions. This is an absurd fiction of course. Yet such a journal might eventually be useful as an adjunct to research in many fields, providing essentially unlimited space for acknowledging (and perhaps also claiming) contributions to research. Already, some online and paper journals are providing links to online information and discussion that is not presented in the main publication.

Although I prefer to err in the direction of inclusiveness when writing my own papers, and despite the example you are reading now, I doubt the value of linking every publication to an ever expanding network of information sources.

It is important for writers to bring focus to a particular subject, and to create works that can be read and largely understood without reference to other sources - by readers in a target audience. This creates a discipline that helps in the writing process, and it also makes the resulting work more transportable, physically and conceptually. It is a piece that has an end, and can be talked about and discussed as a distinct entity, with clearly defined sources.


Comments are welcome, and may be used for future revisions. For a more concise view of the same subject, here is a poem for writers: Read it!

Thank you.


The author thanks his employer, The National Museum of Ethnology , for allowing time to prepare this article. The articles noted in the bibliography are not cited above but were useful in various ways.


1. The Legal Rights of Collaborators And Joint Authors
By Attorney Lloyd J. Jassin

2. Writing a scientific paper
By S.R. Raidal, S.M. Jaensch and F Stephens.
Division of Veterinary and Biomedical Science, Murdoch University, Perth, WA

3. Prevalence of Articles With Honorary Authors and Ghost Authors in Peer-Reviewed Medical Journals
By Annette Flanagin, RN, MA; Lisa A. Carey, PhD; Phil B. Fontanarosa, MD; Stephanie G. Phillips, MS, PhD; Brian P. Pace, MA; George D. Lundberg, MD; Drummond Rennie, MD. (JAMA. 1998;280:222-224)

4. Multiple Authorships
By Barry Werner & Mary Beth Niergarten
(The Scientist 6[10]:12, May. 11, 1992)

Approved by the Graduate Council of the Faculty Senate on 2 April 1990.

6. Guidelines for Coauthorship of Scholarly Publications

7. Responsible Authorship
By Caroline Whitbeck
(The Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science)

8. Authorship ethics.
By Syrett, Kristen L. & Rudner, Lawrence M. (1996)
Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 5(1).

9. Robert Harris (2004) Pompeii (a novel). Arrow Books (source for the quote by Pliny).


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