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During my first post-doc one of the primary researchers just dropped all communications. The upshot is that I have 3 years worth of research that I can't publish without his consent. He was initially keen to publish but when pressed to do his side of the papers he kept pushing the deadline & eventually ceased communicating altogether.

OK, so that happened & I moved on, I had no choice.

Unfortunately I find myself in a similar situations yet again. This time though the lack of communication is with a professor who, after coming up to a year, has not responded to my emails or phone calls. This again after an initial work division & publication plan had been worked out & agreed upon.

This time I do know that the prof is still working at the same place & is still collaborating with the same people but just not responding to me.

What are my options here? What would you do in this situation? I am considering Union representation but is that just going to be toothless?

I have been a post doc now for 5 years & I have nothing published in 4.5 years due to this kind of behaviour.

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    My first question would be how much you have contributed to the lack of communication here. Two similar cases don't necessarily make a pattern, but they might. – Buffy Aug 13 '18 at 16:37
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    I have been trying to keep communication open. In both cases we were communicating regularly about the progress of the papers & then in both cases my emails have not been answered. I have been sending regular weekly requests for comfirmation for comming upto a year with no replies at all & with no indication that anything was wrong. – DrBwts Aug 13 '18 at 16:45
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    What does "communicating" mean? Email? Telephone? Carrier pigeon? – iayork Aug 13 '18 at 17:31
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    as already mentioned both email & phone, weekly over the period of a year – DrBwts Aug 13 '18 at 17:34
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    Couldn't you just write up everything, put the name of everybody involved on it and circulate it by email, asking for approval? If you do not hear anything, you can send reminders, and after some time, something like "If I hear nothing from you in the next 4 weeks, I assume everything is all right and I can publish". – J. Fabian Meier Aug 14 '18 at 12:49
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Asssuming as always that we get a complete and accurate picture of the situation by the OP:

Until physics or medicine do something that under today's standards is indistinguishable from magic, there is one individual natural resource that depletes non-stop: time.

And yes, you are a grown up and you take your chances and accept risks when collaborating, like the ones you saw materialized. But that should not mean "if it doesn't work out smoothly, well, let it die".

The upshot is that I have 3 years worth of research that I can't publish without his consent.

Compare: We are equal partners and decision-makers in a company, and you go on and disappear. Does this mean the company is doomed to remain in limbo forever? Dragging my fortunes with it?

I would seek both legal and academic-ethics advise on this, and on your current situation, probably they are available in your institution for free? Seek detailed expert advise on how you could go on and publish. And in the advice that you will receive, try to detect the most "peaceful" approaches and suggestions -the goal is not to attack or criticize or shame the partner-that-disappeared, just not to throw your time and work in the garbage bin.

And, for the long-run, plan also some work that you can do alone.

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    I'd be really curious what ethical justification there could be for publishing someone else's work when they are, as it seems, intentionally withholding their consent. – Nate Eldredge Aug 14 '18 at 4:26
  • @NateEldredge I believe every author must give consent. (This has probably been discussed elsewhere on this site.) – user2768 Aug 14 '18 at 9:09
  • @NateEldredge When one's own work can't be published without inadvertently publishing someone else's, and that someone else hasn't articulated any reasons to withhold their consent or even affirmed that they're doing so, the ethical scale seems pretty tipped in the OP's favor, notwithstanding what consent is formally required. – Sneftel Aug 14 '18 at 9:09
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    @NateEldredge I do not understand your comment. I did not suggest to the OP to publish someone else's work. I suggested to the OP to seek comprehensive expert advise in order to publish his own work, exactly because it is entangled with someone esle's work . Moreover, rights should be exercised responsibly. And "withholding consent through silence" is a totally irresponsible way of exercising such a right. I am not into a "litigated view" of the world and relations, that's why I suggested to the OP to find the peaceful way out, but if the other party has rights, so do I. – Alecos Papadopoulos Aug 14 '18 at 10:14
  • After reading Alecos's sound advice I'm looking into the legality of this. – DrBwts Aug 14 '18 at 10:16
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Ultimately, you can't make someone collaborate or communicate with you if they don't want to. I think your only option is to either abandon the project, or rewrite it to remove the parts that your collaborator contributed and then publish it as solo work. I don't see how union representation could help in any way.

I'm pretty surprised that this would happen twice, and would wonder if there's something about your interactions that might be causing it. People usually don't voluntarily drop all contact with a collaborator unless something has happened that makes them uncomfortable to continue working with them - ethical concerns, abusive behavior, severe inability to communicate, etc. If you have a colleague who works in the field, and you trust them to be honest with you, you might want to show them the history of your communications and see if they observe any red flags which you might not be aware of.

If you have any common acquaintances with this collaborator, they might also be able to give you some idea as to what is going on.

Normally I'd wonder if there is some involuntary reason for lack of communication - illness, personal problems, death, spam filters - but here it sounds like you've ruled those out.

Regardless of what initially caused the breakdown, I don't think your strategy of "weekly emails/calls for a year" was a good one. I would probably send a maximum of about three messages / calls, with longer periods in between each, and the last one being an ultimatum of sorts: "if I don't hear back from you by date X, then I am going to do Y" (where Y could be stopping work on the project, or removing their contributions and proceeding, or whatever). And then if they don't respond, you do Y, and move on with your life. Persistence can be a virtue, but in this case I'm reminded of the saying about how insanity is when you keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

Another tip for the future is to have multiple projects going on with multiple different collaborators, so that if one of them falls apart (either for scientific or interpersonal reasons) you still have some publications.

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    In the first case the researcher had signifcant issues with other people working on the project. I was the last person he would communicate with. In the second case I have reached out to a two third parties (both of whom are still actively working with the prof in question) who are as bemused as I. Its difficult to get multiple collaborators if my publication record is so poor. – DrBwts Aug 13 '18 at 17:23
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    I've seen the "dropping all communication" regularly, for myself and for other people I know, simply because the other party has no time whatsoever and is completely drowning in emails. – gerrit Aug 13 '18 at 18:07
  • whilst I get that, this is having a detrimental effect on my career. in an answer above somebody is finding this incredulous, imagine how it comes across to potential employers! – DrBwts Aug 13 '18 at 18:09
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    @DrBwts: "imagine how it comes across to potential employers!" I believe that by employers you mean academia. Because outside of academia nobody will care (except maybe for some industrial research positions, and even there probably not). – WoJ Aug 14 '18 at 11:29
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    @DrBwts: sure, I was just commenting in case where the employers may be external. – WoJ Aug 14 '18 at 11:44
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I've seen this many times.

Some scientists, in particular senior scientists, can be outrageously busy. They might have to be on your co-author list because they are responsible for the data. They might insist on being in the loop for the data analysis, but when it's time for feedback on exactly that, they have no time. They may be completely drowning in emails. They might rarely pick up the phone because they're constantly travelling or in meetings. They certainly don't have time to read a paper draft related to some data they provided to someone junior months or even years ago; they may not even remember. Do not take it personally just because they're not communicable. I've found that some scientists are eager to take on a lot more work than they are able to do (because everything is awesome!), but underestimate the time it takes. See Hanlon's razor and Hofstadter's law. Scientists are human, the expectation from a senior scientist may not be human, the result is what we observe. I've had situations where I thought a senior scientist had lost interest, but then spoke to him for 5 minutes at a conference and soon found out that he was still quite interested instead — just incapable of allocating time.

Some senior scientists are very good at time management, manage to reply to emails and even give detailed manuscript feedback even when they're no less busy than any other senior scientist. In my experience, they are a minority.

How to prevent this? If possible, seek out less senior co-authors. That will reduce the risk of this happening. I've had better responses from co-authors junior enough to desperately need papers to have a chance at graduating/staying in science/etc.

How to get out of this situation? Try to reach them in other ways: phone their office, phone or email a secretary to find out when the scientist may be in, or if you're lucky enough to both attend a conference any time soon, try to seek them out during a conference break. Prepare some clear questions: do they still want to be on the paper? Are they happy for publication to go ahead? In my experience, the result is usually one of either:

  1. Please go ahead and remove me as a co-author, I don't have time. I'm OK with the data being only acknowledged/cited, instead of full co-authorship.
  2. Please go ahead, keeping me as a co-author. If other co-author X approves the draft, you can assume I'm fine with the draft as well.
  3. Let me introduce my postdoc/PhD student who is happy to take over my role on this study (we will both be co-authors).
  4. I will have time in X days/weeks/months, please wait for me then.

I've seen all of the above, sometimes with an added apology. I would be very cautious of the last answer, because in my experience, it usually ends up being not true.

If you reach them and they say they don't have time, you could even suggest if they might have a PhD student or postdoc who they could introduce you to (see point 3). Personally, I think #3 is the most professional answer.

You may need to press them, or ask a senior colleague to press them, to get one of those answers at all.

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    "Do not assume anything bad just because they're not communicable." I dunno. The reasons you describe sounds pretty bad, in the "completely unable to manage my time and availability and then refusing to actually admit that to people and let them get on with the work without me" vein. If you don't have time to commit to the project, you need to communicate that as soon as possible to avoid becoming an impediment like this. Withdrawing from the projects early would also mean a smaller pile of e-mails to sift through. – jpmc26 Aug 14 '18 at 21:31
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    "If you reach them and they say they don't have time" after they've agreed to do something, you should at least make them very uncomfortable with this turn of events that they come up with a solution. Some of things I've seen in academia are more unprofessional than anything I could have ever dreamed of in the private sector. – Neil G Aug 15 '18 at 4:56
  • @jpmc26 I mean "don't assume bad" in the sense of Hanlon's Razor. I agree that it's bad to promise to have time, and then not have time. But I've found that some scientists (and probably others, too) promise to take on more work than they can by underestimating the time projects take. I edited the answer to reflect this. – gerrit Aug 15 '18 at 8:50
  • @NeilG I don't know if a junior researcher is in the position to do so. – gerrit Aug 15 '18 at 8:55
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    @NeilG I agree. However, the question is not what senior researchers should do, but what junior researchers might expect. – gerrit Aug 15 '18 at 10:47
2

Having endured my fair share of douchebaggery from professors during my PhD and postdoc, I suggest you send a polite but firm ultimatum to that professor that, unless he responds, you will unilaterally go ahead with the publication and acknowledge him only (or if you feel in a more generous mood, mention him as a co-author). Use all means of communication necessary such as e-mail, fax, and telephone, and keep all traces of your attempts at contacting him. Get others involved as well, for example by CC:ing his secretary, the other co-authors involved, as well as any stakeholder or relevant "witnesses". Give a clear deadline.

You have invested your time and effort and the professor is manifestly being disrespectful and unprofessional by not following up. If he ever complains after the ultimatum has elapsed, you can bring up all the evidence that you tried to reach him and that he is the only one to blame for this obnoxious behavior. There is no reason why your time an effort should go down the drain because of some else's poor deontology.

  • As a preemptive comment to what some may say is a justification for the professor's behavior: I don't see how being "senior" or "busy" are valid excuses. Part of what makes a good professor is the ability to follow up with his students, to not get involved in more projects than he or she can chew, and basically be a good "academic father" to the student or postdoc. From the OP described, this is a case of academic abandonment and is indicative of the degraded business model of academia at large. – Tfovid Aug 15 '18 at 10:39

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