What do Oscars ceremonies and scientific presentations have in common?
The answer? A spirit of attribution.
Both Oscars awards and scientific presentations (in theory at least) are a chance to relate, and hopefully celebrate, your work with an audience of your peers. A chance to stand in the limelight, publicise what you did, and get recognition for it.
And while it may seem mawkish, it’s also a chance to acknowledge the people that helped you get there. Granted, winning an Oscar is a bit more dramatic than giving a progress report at a group meeting, but the setup is basically the same – and our cousins in showbiz know all too well that an essential part of such an occasion is giving a shout-out to the people that helped them earn that spot at the podium. In Gwyneth Paltrow’s case, that means name-checking just about every single cast and crew member, as well as their spouses, extended family, assorted hangers-on, therapists, soft toys, and pets.
It’s the same with citations. Obviously the principal purpose of a citation is to buttress a statement with proof of experimental support, but there’s a reason why reference lists include authors as well as titles and journal details. A citation, like an Oscars shout-out, also acknowledges the specific people that did the work (which is why those same people are so twitchy sometimes, especially if two papers showed the same thing at about the same time).
Just like one of those numbing Biblical begat begat begats, scientific knowledge is the work of people, and it’s those people – as well as the facts they generated – that deserve credit. After all, we may all be playing the posterity game but it’s only a vanishingly small number of us that will ever attain actual immortality alongside the Curies, Darwins, and Einsteins of this world – so let’s celebrate one another’s achievements while we’re still breathing and able to enjoy it.
This isn’t mawkishness, it’s courtesy. It’s polite to note the work of your predecessors that guided your own thought processes. It’s polite to note the contributions of your co-workers and everyone who’s chipped into the project (even if that amounts to no more than giving advice). It’s polite to note the many other people who have in any way facilitated or enabled the story that you’ve just presented.
Why? Because a casual “thanks” can all too easily look offhand, or complacent. Because by not doing so, you run the risk of making your colleagues or collaborators look and feel insignificant. What was their contribution really worth to you, if you can’t expend a few words to express your gratitude? How much do they mean to you, if you apparently can’t be bothered to publicly recognise their input? It’s far better to be generous in acknowledgement than miserly. And doing so helps foster a group spirit and esprit de corps. If people know their contributions – no matter how minor – are valued, they’ll be more likely to do so again, or go further.
Obviously the time available for thanks will vary depending on the occasion, so sometimes – just as in the Oscars – your specific acknowledgements may have to be cut to a bare minimum. Conversely, that means that on the occasions when there basically isn’t a time limit to pay respect (PhD defences, internal seminars, and yes, group meetings), you should namecheck each and every person that deserves one iota of thanks. Sure, there’ll be some eye-rolling from the cynics in the crowd, but everyone’s who’s mentioned will appreciate it.