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I had a colleague who inquired if I would be willing to do some data analysis on a project of his. I thought, sure, why not and had the disclaimer that if the project is viable I'm on.

 

He's a sweet fellow when the conversation is about the weather, sports, or the work schedule at a cocktail. As a person he can be kind of caustic and says stuff off the record that makes me cringe and want to wash my hands. He wants me to do a quantitative analyses of research output over a specific topic and categorize authors. He is trying to look for factors that he thinks contributes to "high quality research output and citations". He wants to group authors by race and the way he is assessing race is conjecture off of name, which I find honestly kind of stupid and a little horrific for this to be in academia. For example, we have a colleague of African descent, and on paper you could not tell him apart based on name alone from someone of European descent due to his combination of first and last name. He also specifically wants to compare the United States against countries from a specific region of the world he has had an off the record vendetta against, which he has made insensitive jokes about in the past. This is an individual that has been reprimanded once by the way by our institution but it was more of a slap on the wrist for name calling in an e-mail.

 

I don't want to put my hands on this project, because hypothesis and everything aside, I don't believe in it. I also am not interested in this kind of work anyway as I thought he was going to have data about an experiment in our field, not about researchers in our field. How do I tell him no after I opened the door at the beginning to be willing to collaborate? He e-mailed me data files, etc. CC'd on e-mails.

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    What is wrong with saying "no"? – Azor Ahai Nov 7 '18 at 22:17
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    I've recently realized I am very busy and just don't have the time to take on another project, especially one that is only tangentially related to my research agenda. – Dawn Nov 7 '18 at 22:19
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    Or, this is a swamp I don't want to wallow in. Actually the IRB might have issues with such "research" in any case. It sounds more like proselytizing than research. I don't often want to use "colorful" language here, but this is tempting. If you set out trying to prove a point it isn't research and nothing you do will salvage it. – Buffy Nov 7 '18 at 22:25
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    @Dawn Sounds like an answer, can you please post it as such. – ff524 Nov 7 '18 at 22:30
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    "I do not believe that this research is viable." – mkennedy Nov 7 '18 at 22:48
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I thought, sure, why not and had the disclaimer that if the project is viable I'm on.

It sounds like there may be some methodological issues with his proposed work, but setting that aside, it is not incumbent on you to work on a project that is not of interest to you, a fortiori if you think that his work will be driven by biases relating to the topic. From your description, it appears that you have already told him that your participation is contingent on this project being viable. In view of that, I think you at least owe him an explanation if you pull out, and an apology if this comes from some reason other than the viability of the project. I see two broad options for pulling out:

  • (1) Tell him that you think his project has some methodological problems (e.g., tenuousness of inferring race from name, etc.) and that you therefore don't think it is viable research. In this case your choice is consistent with your previous representations to him, so you do not owe him any apology.

  • (2) Tell him that you have changed your mind, and you have decided that --regardless of its viability-- the project is not something of interest to you. Be up-front about this and apologise for changing your mind - acknowledge that you previously said you'd participate, but let him know that you have changed your mind.

Either way, the best thing in these cases is to raise this as early as you can, be up-front in your position, and acknowledge any previous representations you made to him. If you wish him luck with his research then this is likely to smooth over any discomfort.

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