Sunday, January 30, 2011

Overly polite? Or a necessary clarification?

It's always bothered me in published work when the author writes (either in an acknowledgments section for a book or an initial/final footnote for an article) something like this:
"I'd like to thank persons A, B, and C, who read drafts of this work and offered helpful comments, suggestions, and criticisms.  Any remaining mistakes are, of course, my own."

If I'm reading someone's work, I'm interested to know who they consulted during the writing and revising stage; such consultation is an important step in academic research, fosters much better writing, and is especially important when journal reviewers so often fail to give extensive comments on article submissions.  Recognition of these consultations helpfully signals to the reader those with whom an author is in conversation.  But I don't know why anyone would reasonably think that a mistake in the final work should be attributed to those who reviewed drafts along the way.  For all the reader knows, the mistake could have been corrected by a reviewer and not incorporated into the final manuscript by the author.  Or the reviewer might only have expertise in one aspect of the work and not presume to comment on another aspect of it, which may indeed turn out to be incorrect.  The reviewer may also disagree with a conclusion of the author, but have the sense to realize that this is the author's paper and not the reviewer's and while the reviewer could draw attention to problems within the author's thinking, there's no sense in rewriting the paper as if it were the reviewer's own.

Reading manuscripts is a service in the profession and I think everyone recognizes it as such.  I've never seen the need to include an ornamental recognition that "the buck stops with me, the author".  Of course it does.  Which brings me to another gripe... even worse, these acknowledgments often say, "All mistakes are, of course, my own."  They refute their own reason for being!

Is this an entirely bizarre pet peeve of mine, or does this have some wider resonance with people?  I'm assuming that the practice is just a matter of etiquette when it occurs, but it just doesn't strike me as a very needed clarification.  The byline says who takes responsibility for the ideas.  The acknowledgment says who spoke constructively with the author at some point.  We don't clarify in the byline that review was sought elsewhere; I don't see why we should be redundant about genuine authorship [which entails responsibility for mistakes] in the acknowledgments note.

8 comments:

  1. Hey Evan,
    I've never thought about this before, but I think you make some good points. You would think that it is universally implied that any mistakes made in a manuscript are of the author's own. I would imagine, though, that such a disclaimer is the result of what is considered to be proper etiquette. However, I think your pet peeve makes complete sense. As a reader I certainly want to know the reviewers and resources consulted during the completion of a manuscript, and I certainly would think to attribute any mistakes to the author.

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  2. It would be interesting to submit an acknowledgement like this that says "A, B, and C contributed helpful comments. Please blame them for any remaining mistakes" - just to see if you could get it past editors.

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  3. It would be interesting to know the origins of this practice. When acknowledgements of this sort first starting popping up in published works was it perceived as one step removed from co-authorship (and so perhaps thought of has having some responsibility for the finished work)?

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  4. This topic has really intrigued me so I looked into it a bit more. I found on article in the Journal of Pragmatics on the issue of "responsibility statements." I haven't been able to get full text, but the abstract seems to intimate that the article is in favor of such statements. Here's the link for the abstract. Sorry for the length of the url.

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6VCW-4NY4WHS-1&_user=10&_coverDate=03%2F31%2F2008&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_origin=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=89c6097d7eb39bff0419d7412f8ce83a&searchtype=a

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  5. Wow, I never would have thought there'd be peer reviewed literature on this sort of practice... just sent you a pdf of it, by the way. I'll have to read it at some point. Thanks for the heads-up.

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  6. I had an idea yesterday for stopping this absurd practice... presumably, I thought, these statements were pretty formulaic. Surely one could raise some massive plagiarism charge against these authors! That would have quite a chilling effect for future responsibility statements. But alas, the article Andrew links includes an appendix that lists over 100 instances of responsibility statements with a surprising diversity of wording. So I don't think legal heavy-handedness is a viable solution.

    Also, Adam mentioned a version of this statement a while back that I could get behind. Along with Daniel's suggestion of actually attributing mistakes to reviewers, I imagine there are a number of interesting possibilities for such creativity.

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  7. It seems like I've actually seen in print somewhere a variation on Daniel's suggestion, but the memory of it is far too vague for me to ever be able to track it down. Alas.

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  8. Just the other day a friend quipped that he was glad to not see this in the acknowledgments page in the forthcoming volume I've edited. He joked that I should think about tagging on at the end: "Any remaining mistakes must, of course, be laid at the feet of both the publisher and the contributors."

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