Credit Where Credit is Specifically Due

An Andy Rooney-esque musing to close out the week: Why do we tend to acknowledge useful feedback from colleagues in a single “thank you” footnote at the beginning of an article, instead of at specific points throughout? The former seems to be the preferred practice, but the latter seems more appropriate in many cases, and I’m not sure why it’s so rare.

My own impulse is to treat colleagues and outside readers just like any other source, and to drop footnotes indicating their specific contributions. If someone gives me an idea that I would have footnoted had it been a published source, it seems that the person should get credit in precisely the same way—that is, at the spot in the article where the idea appears. And while my impressions are admittedly totally unscientific, it seems to me that such footnotes (i.e., “Many thanks to X for bringing this point to my attention.”) are pretty rare.

Maybe the single “thank you” footnote ensures that all the people who contributed to the article will have their names noted by casual readers, who are unlikely to scan any footnotes beyond the first. Or if the purpose of footnotes isn’t so much to give credit as it is to help interested readers pursue their own research, maybe it’s less troubling when a human source goes uncited, since readers are presumably unlikely to follow up with individual people directly. Or perhaps most feedback from colleagues and outside readers is not specific enough to be attributed to any one part of an article.

All of those strike me as plausible explanations, though I’m not sure any of them accurately explains why authors do things the way they do.

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9 Responses

  1. In many of the books I read in the social sciences and philosophy there are notes indicating specific contributions in the manner you mention (I rarely read the journal literature apart from law reviews).

    Perhaps one explanation has to do with the extra effort required for anything more than the single “thank you” note, but I suspect that if authors were to be more generous and specific in their acknowledgements, the more we’d appreciate how little of the final product is truly “original” (without attempting to define what that is) beyond being a new synthesis of perspectives or a fresh endeavor to examine the big picture, and the like; in other words, we’d see how utterly dependent we are on the works of others that precede us and that truly original and creative work in any of the social sciences and especially the humanities is quite rare.

    All the same, simply a note of any kind can prove to be a salve for one’s ego: I still recall having discussed with a friend in graduate school (in another department) a book I had read on Lenin’s political theory (such as it was) and its implications for socialist thought and practice that I thought was pretty simplistic and appallingly ignorant of possible counterarguments, the relevant literature, and so on (and it was fairly well received despite these shortcomings). My friend proceeded to pen a review (he had not known of the book until I told him) and incorporated much of my critique (with the requisite jargon of his field) but did not so much mention my contribution. That surprised and hurt me (these days I don’t trouble myself over such things). On the other hand, I sometimes find acknowledgements that I have not expected (if not doubt I deserve!) and have likewise been taken my by surprise.

  2. erratum” “…likewise been taken by surprise.”

  3. Matt Lister says:

    My own practice (and my preference) is to use a “general” thank you in three main sort of cases: first, when someone gives a general bit of advice that infused throughout the paper- something like, “you should spend more time on the importance of egg-plant cultivation for this problem than you do”, leading me to give more time to egg-plan cultivation throughout the project. Secondly, when someone corrects a specific error- “you said this idea was in vol. 2 of Snigich’s The mating and dietary habits of polar bears but it was actually from vol. 3″ or the like. Third, when they give general stylistic or writing advice. I give a more specific “thanks” in a regular foot-note when someone has given useful help on a specific substantive point- providing a useful example or helping clarify an idea or something like that, at a distinct place in the paper or the argument.

  4. Orin Kerr says:

    I think there are two reasons.

    1. Thanking someone is a social convention meant to be displayed, and putting the thank you in the author footnote puts it on the first page so it can be see easily seen.

    2. In some cases, it can be be hard to remember exactly who helped with what precise point: It requires some amount of work, and some energy spent on judgment, to try to get it right.

  5. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    It may be akin to someone saying: “Thanks, Prof. Blocher, for this post–and for all your others posts this month and generally for joining us a guest here at Co-Op.”

  6. Alan Rau says:

    I think the explanation is pretty straightforward: A blanket “thank you” at the very beginning serves one primary purpose—that of assuring a potential reader that the piece has been vetted by academics of a certain stature. And thus, if Professor So-and-So has thought it worthwhile to read this and make comments, and if Professor So-and-So’s insights have been incorporated, then this may after all be worth my time to read. By contrast, acknowledging particular insights in a targeted fashion later in the piece just serves to undermine any claim to originality in the article itself.

  7. Mike Zimmer says:

    Another reason not to thank someone for specific points made: Law reviews policies not to do that. I recently ran into that problem.

    For interesting discussion of the asterisk footnote, see Charles Sullvan, The Under-Theorized Footnote, 93 Geo. L. Rev. 1093 (2005).

  8. My blog has received a number of such first-footnote acknowledgments that then failed to refer to the blog on specific points made in this or that law review article. My opinion is that the authors found it distasteful to footnote to a blog, even where they clearly derived part of their thesis from my work, because they didn’t consider blogs as credible as more traditional sources.

    To that extent, IMO Alan and Patrick are right. If they footnoted throughout the article, “the more we’d appreciate how little of the final product is truly ‘original’.”

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