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I am a PhD student and the most junior person on our small team (me, a lab manager, a statistical analyst, a wet-bench scientist, a senior statistician, and our PI). The statistical analyst has been on this team for over 15 years--we'll call her Emily. Emily trained me in some areas when I started, but I've learned a lot and I have become very independent in the 5 years I’ve been a trainee.

Some Context

Emily and I have been working closely on a project lately. Because we work so closely, I often ask her for documents related to relevant analyses that she has previously done. I have come to realize that Emily is very error-prone, which I believe our PI already knows. Lately, many of these errors have been discovered when I say something like "that estimate doesn't seem quite right to me" in a lab meeting. I nearly always turn out to be correct and Emily is livid with me for pointing it out. She is typically very defensive and it's very difficult to persuade her to re-check her work. She is dismissive of pretty much everything I say to her directly.

When we went to publish a paper for which I wrote the entire first draft, contributed half of the figures/table, and designed ~90% of the experimental approach, my PI said that Emily and I should be "co-first" author. I agreed because Emily had done ~80% of the experimental work (she wrote most of the code). When my boss made the suggestion that we equally share first-authorship, Emily was so upset that she wasn't the sole first author that she literally screamed in my PI's office about it and then didn't come into lab for 3 days after. These things have set up a poor working relationship between me and Emily.

The Problem

That paper was published, and I'm currently working on several papers that build on those published findings. In working on these new projects, I've discovered an important error that Emily made in the published paper that we are co-first author on.

I made the decision to go to Emily about the error first so that she had a chance to address it with our PI. She denies that there is a mistake and tells me that I'm "too confident about myself" when I say that I'm 100% certain that there is a mistake and lay out all of the evidence that definitively proves it. Unfortunately, I lost my cool a little bit and some of my responses to her were harsh and less-than-professional.

So, I have an email thread that documents Emily's mistake, that I approached her about it directly, and that she actually doesn’t understand what she was doing and therefore denies that the mistake is real; however, we both made some statements that were unprofessional.

The mistake needs to be corrected in order for me to continue with publishing my recent projects (but fortunately does not change the main takeaway of the paper). Emily plans on telling our PI that I’m just a trainee and that I don't know what I'm talking about and that she did not make a mistake (again, I can definitively prove that she did with the email chain). She also has some clout with our PI because she's been there much longer than I have and is more experienced.

How should I proceed?

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    Isn't your PI capable of looking at what Emily did, looking at your explanation of why it's wrong, and determining whether it's actually wrong (perhaps after talking with both of you)? – Andreas Blass Apr 1 at 18:23
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    Yes. I'm not concerned that I can demonstrate that the mistake is real to my PI, but I feel that this issue goes beyond just correcting this single mistake. I feel like the way that Emily treats me is inappropriate and unprofessional, and furthermore, I have a hard time trusting a lot of her work due to the magnitude of errors that I find. I'm not sure if I should only discuss the mistake or if I should discuss some of the broader issues exemplified by this situation. – Sad_Tired_GradStudent Apr 1 at 18:29
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    In your position, I'd be inclined to get the immediate problem, this single mistake, solved so that you can proceed with your recent projects. Afterward, you could mention the larger problem to your PI. Make sure you have documentation about whatever mistakes you mention. – Andreas Blass Apr 1 at 18:32
  • Fair enough. Thanks for your advice @AndreasBlass!! I do appreciate it. – Sad_Tired_GradStudent Apr 1 at 18:34
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    The statistical analyst has been on this team for over 15 years, yet is very error-prone. Why is the statistical analyst still on the team? Is there something that you're missing? – user2768 Apr 2 at 8:58
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When we went to publish a paper ... my boss made the suggestion that we equally share first-authorship, Emily was so upset that she wasn't the sole first author that she literally screamed in my PI's office about it and then didn't come into lab for 3 days after.

If possible, it is always a good idea to negotiate contributions and authorship of a paper prior to conducting the relevant research and drafting of the paper. This kind of dispute can best be avoided by having all the researchers sit down prior to the research project and agree on the roles of each of the researchers, and how the authorship will be allocated (i.e., who is a co-author vs an acknowledgement, order of authors, etc.). In some cases the actual contributions may end up differing from the initial plan, and so a renegotiation of the authorship could occur, but in many cases you can avoid disputes by having a clear set of expectations at the start of the project. Once a dispute arises, there is going to have to be some negotiation and decision made about the dispute, but in the future it would be best to avoid these problems by agreeing on authorship details in advance.

... I'm currently working on several papers that build on those published findings. In working on these new projects, I've discovered an important error that Emily made in the published paper that we are co-first author on. She denies that there is a mistake... The mistake needs to be corrected in order for me to continue with publishing my recent projects (but fortunately does not change the main takeaway of the paper). Emily plans on telling our PI that I’m just a trainee and that I don't know what I'm talking about and that she did not make a mistake (again, I can definitively prove that she did with the email chain). She also has some clout with our PI because she's been there much longer than I have and is more experienced.

Firstly, you should do everything possible to see if you, Emily, and your PI, can reach an agreement on whether or not there is an error in the published paper. I would suggest making a meeting with your PI where all of you can look over the details of the claimed error, check your working and discuss the matter, and see if you can come to agreement about whether or not there is actually an error. If you can get your co-authors to agree with your view, then you could all submit an erratum to the previous paper correcting the error. If your co-authors can convince you that there is no error, the matter is also resolved.

It sounds like this might not be possible, and so if you try all this and exhaust all possibility of agreement, then here is what I would suggest. You are the author of your new papers, so it is up to you what to write in them. It is perfectly acceptable for you to claim in your new papers that you have identified an error in the previous published paper. For full disclosure to your reader, you should make your claim in the paper, but also note that the claim of the error is disputed by your co-author. (You can give relevant details in a footnote, but keep it succinct and professional. Do not bog the reader down with excessive detail or a big shit-fight.) Re-run the previous analysis without the error, note the new results, and proceed with your new papers on that basis. Emily will be just as entitled to submit new papers claiming that she is correct and there is no error. (Both sets of papers would be vetted by referees, but it might be difficult for them to tell who is right, so you might find that some referees will be reluctant to recommend publication.)

If you are unable to come to an agreement on the alleged error with your co-authors, ultimately that is going to mean that you end up claiming one thing and she ends up claiming another. If these are your papers, and you have tried and failed to reach agreement on the matter, I see no reason why this issue would require any further intervention of your PI, so her greater "clout" with the PI should not make any difference. You are entitled to submit research to journals making claims you believe in good-faith to be true. (If you want to, it would also be legitimate for your to submit an erratum for the previous paper to the original journal, notifying your co-authors, and noting clearly in your erratum that your claim of an error is disputed by your co-authors. I suspect that the journal might not accept this, but you could submit it if you wanted to.)

Unfortunately, I lost my cool a little bit and some of my responses to her were harsh and less-than-professional. ... we both made some statements that were unprofessional.

That is a problem, and you are both going to need to cool it. (And it is probably worth apologising for any comments that were unprofessional.) Keep your focus on the work, and the correctness or incorrectness of the methods and results. If you cannot engage with Emily without making unprofessional comments, you should disengage communication with her.

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From what I read in your communications, you have a very serious communication problem with your co-workers.

Lately, many of these errors have been discovered when I say something like "that estimate doesn't seem quite right to me" in a lab meeting. I nearly always turn out to be correct and Emily is livid with me for pointing it out.

In working on these new projects, I've discovered an important error that Emily made in the published paper that we are co-first author on.

And some of your other sentences...

Paper writing with a group is a TEAM project. You are not playing as a team player. That error you found does not belong to Emily only. That error belong to all of you as a team, all of the authors. You have no right to say it is Emily's error only. If you insist on this attitude, this means that you want all the positives from the paper but no negatives. Since you are able to find the error now, this means that you did not check it yourself good enough before.

Of course you should point out errors and fix them going forward but to err is human. This problem is not about you finding errors of your co-workers but more about how you communicate with them about this errors.

Lets consider that you become a team leader yourself, in academia or in a company, and a co-worker find your errors, this means nothing. See following wikipedia page about David Hilbert.

His collected works (Gesammelte Abhandlungen) have been published several times. The original versions of his papers contained "many technical errors of varying degree";...

But if a person informs rudely you about your mistakes, anyone will become defensive regardless of their position. And this is more about perceived rudeness. You need to think about your communications and talk with some other people so that they can give you feedback.

Take a lesson from this problem. This type of relationship problems will exists everywhere. It will not be different in professional domain also.

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    I have to disagree. Teamwork does not repeal the notion of personal areas of responsibility. A team member is primarily responsible for their own contribution, and only then for checking the work of others. Sometimes there is only one member with knowledge of e.g. stats or experiment work. Their errors remain their own. They can compromise the work of the team, though. – Dmitry Savostyanov Apr 2 at 12:41
  • I think, you can only assume this to be true for some journals where they explicitly state personal contributions. But those journals are rare. – Atilla Ozgur Apr 2 at 12:54
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    No, this is true also for areas where people do not publish at all. Example: Two people serving a cafe are a team. But if one of them is personally responsible for keeping cash safe, and cash gone missing, it's not the team failure, it's individual under-performance. BTW, why are you spell team in ALL CAPITALS? – Dmitry Savostyanov Apr 2 at 14:24
  • In this case, I disagree with you, though I see your point. In this case, I have 4 different email threads with our team PRIOR to submission where I bring up 4 different concerns about the analysis in which I found the error. I suspected that there was a problem months before we submitted, but Emily was dismissive of those concerns, and our PI followed-suit with hardly any further investigation into my concerns. I only found the error after I went through her log files, which I did not have access to before publishing. I couldn't be 100% certain of the error before I had the logs. – Sad_Tired_GradStudent Apr 2 at 14:59
  • Also, this was published in a journal where specific author contributions are listed, and this error is not under my "jursidiction." – Sad_Tired_GradStudent Apr 2 at 15:11
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For the current project: Focus on what the scientific error is. Stop focusing on whose fault it is. You may need to get the error fixed to continue with the followup work, but presumably the followup doesn’t depend on anyone admitting fault. All the issues about digging up email trails to show whose fault it was are a massive distraction — things like that serve no scientific purpose, and will make Emily more defensive, and make it look to other people like you’re (at best) mean-spirited and intolerant of other people’s fallibility, and (at worst) like you have a vendetta against Emily.

If, instead, you point out a mistake and its content without finger-pointing about the blame, people are much more likely to be willing to admit the mistake and help fix it (and to try to avoid such mistakes going forward).

Even though the water has been muddied, it’s hopefully not too late for damage control. Apologise to Emily, either privately or in the group setting, for anything unprofessional you said. Hopefully she’ll then apologise in turn, but if don’t try to make her — that won’t help anything. Maybe also apologise, if you can bring yourself to, for having focused too much on finger-pointing. Emphasise that you just want to make sure this scientific point is correct, going forward. And then if she disputes the issue further, be ready to explain again what you think the mistake is — purely the scientific error, nothing personal, no finger-pointing, describing things as “we wrote X…” rather than as “Emily wrote X…”, and being genuinely open-minded to the possibility you might be mistaken (even though you’re sure you’re not).

On this possibility: bear in mind that happens to all of us sometimes, even when we’re pretty sure about something. If you are phrasing the problem as “Hey, I’m worried we have a mistake in that pervious … could someone else check this with me?”, and it turns out there’s no error after all, then it’s still no big deal — you’ve not lost much face. If on the other hand you phrase it as “Look, Emily made an error here!” and it turns out she didn’t, then that really looks bad for you. Being diplomatic, tactful, and a team player isn’t just about being nice to others (though that is important) — it’s also much better for you in many ways.

  • You say "Stop focusing on whose fault it is" & "point out a mistake without finger-pointing", but there's no indication whatsoever in the question that the asker ever openly attributed blame to Emily in his communications with her or others. It's Emily, in this story, who is refusing to allow errors to be fixed because she knows she was the one who made them. This entire answer basically consists of making up a load of behaviour that there's no indication the OP has ever engaged in and then telling them to stop doing it. – Mark Amery Apr 2 at 13:13
  • @MarkAmery: Agreed, I’m reading between the lines a little — the OP doesn’t explicitly say much about how they described it to their colleagues. However, in their description of it here, they frame it very much in language of personalised fault and blame. Perhaps they didn’t show any of the same framing in their discussions with their colleagues, in which case sure, this answer isn’t the right one. But if they’re thinking of it the way they describe it here, it seems quite likely to me that this is also part of how they have raised it in the group, in which case this answer is relevant. – PLL Apr 2 at 13:46
  • Part of the problem here is that Emily is often dismissive of me when I say anything that even might be construed as critical of her work. I did actually use the "I'm a little concerned about X because I know Y, and X & Y don't seem to jive, can we have a second look?" approach. Unfortunately, that approach didn't work. And others on the team didn't feel my argument was strong enough to look into then. Now I am 100% sure that there is an error, and I am frustrated because I did, in fact, try to address it prior to submission with basically no success. – Sad_Tired_GradStudent Apr 2 at 15:13

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