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I am a mid-career mathematician. I have had a long-term collaboration with a well established, influential, and recognized senior mathematician. We wrote many papers together for the last ten years and the first papers have been the fruits of a real collaboration and exchange of ideas. However, in the last papers, there was no collaboration anymore and I have been the only one to work on the problems and solve them, even though the papers were cosigned.

About 3 years ago I sent a note to this professor with our two names on it, proposing a project and proving a result in a given framework. She/He has been sitting on the file since then, without any kind of input.

One year ago, during a discussion with other collaborators, this project resurfaced and we, the new collaborators and I, obtained a series of very interesting and deep results in another framework. We developed methods which were completely different from what I sent to the professor. With my new collaborators, I eventually posted a paper on Arxiv in the summer 2017.

A few days ago, the professor to which I sent the file 3 years ago came back to me with insulting emails and threatens to tell the mathematical community and my new collaborators that the project originates from her/him (which is not true) and that I have been deceitful.

I made the ethical mistake of not informing this professor of my new collaborations and my new collaborators of the existence of this file that I sent to the professor. However, the intersection between the note sent to the professor and the final paper is very small and I have often felt bullied by this professor and wanted to distance myself from her/him. Since this professor is influential, the situation is very distressful.

What would be the best way to handle the situation now ?

  • Welcome, @foliated234. I've edited your question, hoping to clarify who did what with/out whom. Feel free to roll back or change if I misunderstood. – henning -- reinstate Monica Jan 25 '18 at 8:51
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    Do you still have some kind of proof that the file was sent from you to them or that you have versions of the file which are dated and older than any they could have? That could help in case of an escalation. (Of course, I hope you won't need it.) – skymningen Jan 25 '18 at 14:03
  • Yes, I still have the 3 years old email containing the file that I sent to the professor. and where I proposed the project. For proving her/his point in one of the threatenings email, this professor included the very same file, claiming that when a file is originated it becomes shared intellectual property. Since the two files are the same, I guess it proves that she/he did not do anything with it. – foliated234 Jan 25 '18 at 14:59
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Right now, given the lack of details (and maybe you don't want to add more), it's hard to say what to do. One thing that would be good to know is: what are you actually worried about? If you are tenured (I guess mid-career means this), you don't need to worry about that. What sort of influence does this person actually have? Disputes happen from time to time, and if your collaborator is a jerk and people know this, they may not pay much attention to their rantings.

That said, my suggestion is to reply with something along the lines of:

Sorry we neglected to mention my preprint with you. That project came about independently, and I should have told you about it earlier. I've added an acknowledgement and a reference to that preprint. See attached. Other comments welcome. By the way, what do you want to do with our preprint?

From my point of view, it makes sense to mention your preprint from 3 years ago in your newer paper, and being generous with acknowledgements costs you nothing. (Presumably you've had discussion about related things, which, even if your colleague did not actively contribute to your understanding of things, may have been helpful in some ways. Though again, I don't know the specifics, so you have to decide this.)

Even if you can win, no one wants to get into some big fight about who had what idea when, so if there's a reasonable way to mollify your colleague, it's probably worth it. Admittedly, your colleague doesn't sound reasonable, but if you add an acknowledgement and reference to that preprint, I imagine most people would think you behaved ethically even if your colleague goes on a rant-page.

You should also discuss this with your present coauthors before doing anything.

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    +1 You are opening the door for softening the situation. It may not work, but demonstrates goodwill. Generally, especially senior people believe (and sometimes rightly) that discussing research ideas warrants some credit somewhere. It is sometimes said that ideas are cheap and the real work comes after, but that is not always true. If in doubt, acknowledge. – Captain Emacs Jan 26 '18 at 1:23
  • A major issue is the problem of recommendation letters for promotion to full professor rank in a community which is not very large (I would be eligible next year). Thanks a lot for your advice, since I prefer to do whatever possible to first try to smooth things out. I will do that: not answer the threats and insults at this stage, but discuss first the situation with my present coauthors, and then send a polite email to the professor exactly along the lines you propose. – foliated234 Jan 26 '18 at 5:06
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    @foliated234 At universities I'm familiar with, your co-authors will not be asked for letters, so I guess you are worried about your colleague convincing others in the area you did something underhanded. Do you know how this senior colleague is viewed by other senior people in the area, in terms of honesty, integrity, reasonableness? I would suspect that if this person has a history of treating others unfairly, others in the field would know about this. – Kimball Jan 26 '18 at 5:30
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Before you do anything else, first of all, secure your full independence from the prior professor. It includes funding, reference letter, community work, committees, etc. Don't answer any of his e-mails in this period; answer only some else's questions regarding your relationship.

Second, save the proof material: the old copies of what you did with him, e-mails, etc.

Third, only then reply to the old guy. Insist on your viewpoint and threaten him back, telling him that in case of claims from his part you'd issue the counter-claims from your part. Remind him that false accusations can be legally prosecuted. If he did issue false claims, actually check whether you are right from the legal viewpoint and perhaps proceed with the help of the attorney.

Fourth, proceed with publication as you wished.

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    Your advice seems risky when dealing with someone influential. – Roland Jan 25 '18 at 11:29
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    Is step three prudent? It seems to me that a good line of defense (your steps one and two) is enough. A counter-threat isn't necessary and can backfire. – henning -- reinstate Monica Jan 25 '18 at 12:43
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    Thanks for the advices. I kept all the email correspondences and evidence that she/he did not contribute at all. I would rather not escalate immediately though, maybe only counterattacking if she/he goes through the threats. What I fear the most, is that she/he defames me behind my back and I don't have the opportunity to defend myself. – foliated234 Jan 25 '18 at 15:38
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    I don't like the tone of this response: "old guy", "threaten". In particular: "Remind him that false accusations can be legally prosecuted." Anything can be legally prosecuted, but the idea of one pure mathematician [the OP's username suggests he is in geometry/topology] suing another would sound risible to the mathematical community. – Pete L. Clark Jan 25 '18 at 22:23
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    @Elizabeth: How do you call the worldwide mathematical community into a courtroom? How can a court determine whether a project "really originates from his collaborator" or not -- without a profound understanding of the intellectual content, this is absolutely impossible. With a profound understanding of the intellectual content, it is (probably) inherently subjective. How can the OP prove that his collaborator said bad things about him if these bad things are expressed in person? – Pete L. Clark Jan 25 '18 at 23:54
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This is an interesting question to me as I can easily see myself in the same situation in the future, in case I actually stay in the academia. Currently I am a postdoc, considering using my skills in a different way. I grew tired of the feudal organisation pertaining modern academia.

I belong in a completely different realm (biology) but essentially I see the core issues in my sphere. I believe this is a growing widespread problem, and that significant conflicts will be inevitable to anyone seeking a truly scientific (=unbiased and independent) career. I elaborate below with my proposed line of action.

There has been a steep increase in the number of academics. That meant comparatively few established professors had to advise numerous younger academics. In many institutions most of the oldest professors had a straightforward entry to their departments, and became local political figures. For numerous reasons, funding and career pressure has shifted to productivity scores, thus in order to stay at the top most established professors had devised strategies keep up with the ever-growing number demands. They use their influence to attract (artificial) productivity numbers which further increases their influence. This generated a feudal system where so numerous are the vassals paying toll to 'lablords' in order to have a place to work.

Finally, anyone willing to become a 'lablord' needs to be nominated or somehow shoulder his way into this aristocracy. Most of the academic vassals are trying to buy their way into aristocracy over extended years of subservience. The main problems are (i) not all aristocrat professors can or will nominate one of their 'loyal vassals'; (ii) because of the channelling productivity goals are ever-increasing far beyond the reach of many of the most invested young academics; (iii) most a true scientist cannot remain loyal to biased practice, e.g. stick to some clan doctrine or etiquette. The result of such feudal system is a bubble, which is bound to lead to a general revolt (a PhD cannot be unmade).

Now I believe you find yourself in this uncomfortable moment where you've been paying loyalty for so many years, feeding the very influence sphere which you did not foresee as your future enemy. Because if you wish to grow as a scientist, you must free yourself. Unfortunately there are currently too few young academics at war against the established aristocracy, so it'll be hard to obtain allies. My advice to you is that you make a fundamental career choice:

(a) You remain loyal and lower scientific & moral standards to enjoy some academic peace for longer. In such case you must see what to openly sacrifice to hopefully please your 'lord' while offering something else to reestablish the political support. You must know this person well enough and would know where to press. Mind you that it might be just too late, and there is no true obligation of the other part to reward you or even really stop a defamation campaign after you make your sacrifice(s).

(b) You accept the inevitable conflict head-on and think of a strategy to rid yourself of your ancient master. You have put yourself in this position over years and there is probably no friendly way out of this. Likely you'll lose the support of anyone who sides up with the other part, which may include people you consider as friends. For at least a couple of years, expect this professor to seek to destroy you (you'll be an example), which may easily cost your current career plans. Do you consider joining the industry?

Personal advice: (a) could lead to humiliation followed by depression, but may well be the only way to save your current projects. I think the best strategy in (b) is to generate further revolt against said professor so this person suddenly finds itself with too many political enemies and thus cannot focus on you. Be assured that there is a bubble and this person is scared of it crumbling, as illustrated by the overreaction; so if you're lucky (a) could buy you time until (b) is embraced by others and you can backstab with a->b.

I do not think there is any intermediate path, as not clearly abiding to (a) tends to be perceived as (b) by the other part.

Sorry if too long or philosophical.

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    I was tempted to downvote when I still couldn't see an answer after the third paragraph. But then I enjoyed the analysis, which is kind of insightful although not of much practical help, I suppose. Perhaps you can think of more practical/strategic implications? – henning -- reinstate Monica Jan 26 '18 at 9:30
  • @henning I understand but I think there is no one protocol I can recommend here. I do suggest practical implications in choosing (a) or (b), but I cannot pinpoint how to melt back the professor in (a) or reduce the enemy's influence in (b) without specific information. – Scientist Jan 26 '18 at 9:34
  • I must add that many comments in the other answers seem to speak from a US-centred reality where someone could gather material to sue the other part in the conflict. This is not a reality almost everywhere else in the academia. – Scientist Jan 26 '18 at 9:37

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