And, my special thanks to my pet iguana, and the guy who cuts my hair …

It’s the season of Golden Globes, of BAFTAs, of Cesar’s, of Emmy’s, and of Academic Awards (and associated kerfuffle). A staple of these events is not-at-all-prepared thank-you speeches, delivered through a veil of fake surprise and emotion.

It seems that in the entertainment industry, the metrics for whom to include is everybody, and their cat – the more corny and irrelevant, the better the thank-you-speech:

“Oh my gawd, and I would like to thank my pet iguana, and my parents, and the guy who cuts my hair …I couldn’t have done it without you”.

The scientific/engineering analog of the thank-you speech is the acknowledgment section in a paper, or a standard, or a memorandum.

But, what’s the right metric for determining which people to acknowledge? It depends on context, of course.

Whereas in the entertainment industry,  “my pet iguana, my parents, and the guy who cuts my hair” apparently is par for the course, those are almost never the right crowd to acknowledge in any other contexts…

Acknowledgements in the IETF

In the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force),  for documents proceeding to become ratified standards, (“RFCs” in IETF lingo),  “change control” belongs to the working group chartered with developing them. The authors “hold the pen” on behalf of the working group, and while document authors typically are major technical contributors to the document, they are required to reflect the consensus of the working group — as expressed and discussed on the working group mailing list.

There generally are three levels of “recognition” of contribution to an IETF document, reflected as sections in IETF documents. In increasing order of significance, these are  “Acknowledgement”, “Contributors”, and “Authors”.

I’ve been an author of 20+ RFCs so far. In that capacity, and in view of the fact that IETF documents are “owned by the working group”, I tend to, in each document, add an acknowledgement to “the WG participants”: it’s hard to keep track of every comma, every discussion, every decision, but this is recognising where the discussion and decision took place – and, an eager soul, could go dig up the relevant IETF mailing list archives.

WG participants will (presumably) all be motivated and engaged enough to review the document, and in doing so (even if not speaking up) are contributing to getting “eyes on identifying if there is a problem”. That’s “part of the job” of being a WG participant, and is acknowledged by way of the blanket-acknowledgement of “The WG participants”.

I will generally put in an explicit acknowledgement when someone “goes above and beyond”. For example in RFC3626 (OSR)  where Chris Dearlove contributed important points to development of the MPR Selection heuristic – or in RFC5148 where  Gitte Hansen and Lars Christensen had worked hard to provide experimental validation of the applicability of Jitter to OLSR.  Or in RFC7859, where my colleague Ben Smith had done an independent cryptological validation of the approach, which deserved (and got) an explicit shout-out by the guy (not me) authoring that specification.

A “Contributor” is someone committing substantially to a specific point, but who does not take “overall document responsibility”: for example, somebody developing and documenting a specific algorithm, or writing a major section of a document – or, alternatively, contributes a major topical analysis, such as a “security review”, and makes detailed recommendations.

And finally, authors who (in some way) are “holding the pen for the working group” — and, as such, are assuming overall responsibility for the document, editorially and otherwise.

I’m known for having explicitly asked people remove my name from the acknowledgements section of an IETF document…not because I did not wanted to be associated with  the document, but because that all I did was simply provide a review (albeit, a detailed review). While the review might have majorly impacted the final document, that’s not “above and beyond”: indeed, it’s par for the course that IETF documents undergo many reviews on the path from an Internet-Draft to a published RFC.

Sometimes there’re people, who sees this very differently.  Abdussalam Baryun (https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Abdussalam_Baryun) is one example hereof,  who went as far as formally appealing (https://www.ietf.org/iesg/appeal/baryun-2013-06-19.txt) a decision to publish a document because his name was not in the Acknowledgements section for it. His argument was: he had reviewed the document, and while the review had not impacted the resulting document more than any other WG comment, he felt that him “doing what is part of the job” of participating in an IETF WG merited being explicitly acknowledged.

The IETF did, of course, reject Abdussalam Baryun’s appeal (https://www.ietf.org/iesg/appeal/response-to-baryun-2013-06-19.html) as groundless – but the example goes to illustrate that there are different points of view on this matter.

Acknowledgements in Academic Papers

In academic papers, there are authors – and occasional acknowledgements. The authors are unequivocally those who “do the science, write the document” – but, what about the acknowledgements? I tend to apply much of the same metric there, as I do to IETF document: don’t acknowledge somebody for doing his/her job.

One of the most corny acknowledgements is when a PhD student adds an acknowledgement to his/her PhD advisor … for “having provided a detailed review of the document, and valuable guidance” or something of the sort.

Providing guidance and a detailed review, and even extensive editorial assistance, is exactly the job that a PhD advisor is supposed to do — and if a student feels it needed to acknowledge an occasion when his/her advisor actually does his/her job,…then perhaps that is an indicator that the advisor, in general, is not doing his/her job, or is doing the job rather poorly.

For sure, was one of my PhD students to add an acknowledgement to me in a paper, then I would take it as a very direct suggestion that he/she was generally unhappy with my involvement, and we’d have a conversation to figure out how to resolve that.

As a matter of rule, I try to make it such that (as far as possible – which it is not always, especially when there are tight deadlines) any paper going out from my research group has been reviewed by all senior faculty members and researchers. In part because that way we can help catch each others oopsies 😉 — in part as it is a good way to ensure that everybody is aware roughly what everybody is working on, in case there’re any synergies to exploit.

But, of course, we do not add frivolous acknowledgements to each other for that. It’s part of the job of being member of a research group.

On the other hand, discussing a rough idea over coffee (or in a conference) with a peer, which inspires a key idea in a paper,  that certainly merits an explicit acknowledgement. As does it when I ask a colleague for a technical opinion on a point, where I’m not competent myself..

So, in Conclusion …

When should a person be acknowledged? My answer is:

  • Never when doing his/her job.
  • Always when going above and beyond the job”

And, a (PhD or otherwise) student should, in particular, never feel the need to acknowledge his or her PhD advisor.

(Featured image sourced from wikimedia)

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