This question is about placing a footnote acknowledgement in an academic paper that some idea (or the seed of the idea) was based on some stackexchange question that I asked. I ended up doing this for my thesis on a particular topic because I got some decent advice. Preferably, in future projects I would like to avoid doing this, because readers of the journal might wonder why I couldn't figure something like this out myself and it might look bad in 10+ years that I would need help on such a simple thing. Thus, I want to know the acceptable amount of help that I can get/questions I can ask without being required ethically to acknowledge StackExchange (users).

Consider this question. If the author of this question then went to use transformations and adjustment/deletion of outliers in his study, and that's what was mentioned in the best answer to that question, should he acknowledge StackExchange/SE-users in his/her paper?

Or, consider the problem of implementing estimator $X$. It is an empirical paper, and I need to build $X$ into R. However, I do not understand one of the equations that constitute the implementation of $X$ so I ask CV what the equation means and how I'm supposed to implement it and I get the answer. Do I acknowledge this in the paper?

I would hope people aren't embarrassed to ask for help on CV--that defeats the purpose--but I know what you mean. As more & more of people's lives becomes recorded & searchable on-line, our standards (socially) will ultimately have to change. –  gung Dec 17 '12 at 3:57
@gung Yeah. I still ask a tonne of questions on SE and CV related to my general learning & development in statistics and econometrics. However I have been avoiding asking technical questions specific to the projects I'm currently working on, even if I'm in a bit of a rut, because I don't want to put the acknowledgement into the paper as I may regret it down the road. For example a footnote that says "I would like to acknowledge [...] for helping me to understand this [....] with measurement error [...]" would be quite embarrassing in 10 years when I become more experienced. –  Jase Dec 17 '12 at 10:19
(+1) Very good question. I think it depends on how much help you get in the answers. See for example this question. If you just clarified some ideas or concepts with the question, I think it is fine not to acknowledge SE-users. But if the question triggered or improved an idea that became a paper, then acknowledging the person(s) involved in the discussion may be more ethically correct. In addition, typically you just acknowledge "helpful discussions" and rarely specify what you discussed with the person unless there is a special reason for this. –  user10525 Dec 17 '12 at 11:15
@Procrastinator That sounds like an answer to me. –  Aarthi Dec 17 '12 at 14:33
I don't see why acknowledging help need be embarrassing. –  Glen_b Dec 22 '12 at 3:27
@Glen_b I don't have problem acknowledging "helpful discussions". When I made the post I was thinking of things like "I would like to thank StackExchange users for helping me to understand that YYY happens with ZZZ measurement error." <-- Something simple like this will be embarrassing down the road. –  Jase Dec 22 '12 at 4:06
You could call that simply 'helpful discussion'. There's some degree of judgement involved, but I have been acknowledged for giving pointers on discussion groups before. –  Glen_b Dec 22 '12 at 4:19
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2 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I think that to acknowledge or not to acknowledge depends on how much help you get in the answers. See for example this question.

  • If you just clarified some ideas or concepts with the question, then I think it is fine not to acknowledge SE-users. Answering this sort of questions is one of the goals of SE sites and we all know that what we post here becomes of the public domain.

  • On the other hand, if the question triggered or improved an idea that became a paper through a substantial involvement of one or more of the responders, then acknowledging this person(s) may be more ethically correct. Some SE users go beyond the question and provide proofs of new results or code. If you are planning to use them or include them in a research paper, then acknowledging their contribution is more correct, I think. If this is the case, you can let the user know through a message in the corresponding answer and see his/her opinion. It might be the case that the responder do not want to be acknowledged.

In addition, typically you just have to acknowledge for "helpful discussions" without providing further details unless there is a special reason for doing so (such as including a result proved by the other person, a code, helpful/crucial references, or an original idea).

In my opinion, your question asks for clarification of a well-known result. I do not think it is necessary to acknowledge the responders unless you want to use the counterexample provided by @whuber. The rest of the contributions seem to be general pointers to me.

I have found some related discussions in Academia-SE:

  1. Attributing contributions to academic work that occur in Stack Exchange
  2. Academic discretion: Should one participate in online forums or Stack Exchange sites anonymously?
(+1). I'll just add that I've also seen the "helpful discussions" comment in the acknowledgments of a paper. It may sound a little odd to acknowledge, e.g. "@Procrastinator from the stats SE", though, so if you really felt that you wanted make the acknowledgment, it may be good to ask for the poster's real name and do it that way - if they politely decline the offer then you're "off the hook". –  Macro Dec 17 '12 at 16:12
(+1). When you say "do not think it is necessary to acknowledge the responders", do you mean that it's not necessary to acknowledge the actual individuals, or did you mean SE as a whole? (It is not really related to me because I will not even discuss this problem in the paper that it applies to. I figured out how to get the correct critical values from a recent econometrics paper that uses a simulation study). –  Jase Dec 17 '12 at 16:38
@Jase I think that in this case it is not necessary to acknowledge neither the site, since this is not an authoritative source, nor the individuals, since the contribution seems to be tangential. Note that these citation or acknowledgement rules also apply in the opposite direction. This is, it is not ethical to ask to be included in a paper in which you are not deeply involved. –  user10525 Dec 17 '12 at 19:32
Good answer. On general points of learning and understanding I certainly don't think you need to reference Cross-Validated, any more than we have to keep referencing that lecturer (or text book author) who finally helped us understand the concept of a (for example) difference between a distribution of a population and distribution of a statistic. –  Peter Ellis Dec 18 '12 at 4:56
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Just my $0.02:

Sometimes it may be a good idea to ask for references. Because even if you used StackOverflow as your primary source, the ideas may have originated elsewhere. I consider it more appropriate to cite the original sources then (although of course the SO posters should receive a thank you, IMHO, and maybe mention them in the acknowledgements for the pointer).

As a side effect, this may yield a source that is much easier to cite (such as an academic paper), while citing web pages is still frowned upon. Many professors will e.g. not accept Wikipedia as an appropriate resource (and in fact, anything on Wikipedia should have a previous work) and may treat web sites such as SE/CV the same way.

Of course, if there is no previous work the reply was based on, things get more tricky/interesting.

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