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I am a graduate student (PhD) in a STEM program. A fellow lab mate of mine asked me to review a chapter (basically the background/history of their project) of their graduate thesis a couple months ago. It was during my finals, I had conference papers due, along with the pandemic shutting everything down; it was a crazy time. I informed this person I was really busy, but I would try. They sent it to me (in PDF format), and I read through it and made some suggestions on content, ideas, and presentation. It was in rough shape; there was a lot of work to be done, but their main concern was if the content made sense and had good logic flow. I replied with my opinions. This was a favor from me without compensation. The thesis was in English and the lab mate was a native speaker.

Fast forward to now, this person defended their thesis this week and passed. Yesterday I received a very passive aggressive text message from this person that stated the following (mostly paraphrasing):

The only real critique I had on my thesis was that the chapter I sent you had typos. I went through this chapter again and found quite a few. In the future when someone asks you to review a chapter you need to carefully check and find typos because it’s embarrassing to send a final thesis with a chapter filled with typos. Its disappointing when you rely on someone and they screw you I hope in the future you do a better job.

The rest of the text chain did not go well.

Let me start off by admitting that I am able to see my fault in this. I could’ve (should’ve) done a more thorough job in editing. But my question is: Is it really my responsibility to find typos? It’s always been my view that you polish something as much as you can before sending it off to others. They sent it in a PDF which I can’t edit (also no indication of spelling mistakes, and its so easy to gloss over mistakes), and I informed them I was super busy, both excuses, but still a little relevant. I also was dumbfounded that they didn’t do a single edit after mine. I feel ultimately it is their graduate thesis and their responsibility for its contents. I feel I can’t be blamed for this person literally not pressing the spell-check button.

In hindsight I should’ve been more assertive with this person by saying I didn’t have enough time to fully give myself to editing. This is a lesson I’ve learned. They are now removing me from their acknowledgements (I couldn’t care less), but what I do care about are the things they are telling other people about me (I screwed them; I’m lazy; etc.). I replied to their texts expressing my view that the typos are not my fault, and it quickly turned into a blow out where I just ended up apologizing and asking not to discuss it further.

What could I have done better? What should I do now? Am I justified in my opinions?

PS: Thank you all for your responses and encouragements. I was feeling pretty bad about the situation, but I feel a little vindicated now. I’ve learned a lesson: I will focus on clear communication and setting expectations.

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    I find that it is common for the acknowledgements section of a document to have a sentence approximately as follows: "I want to thank all the people listed below for their help, but of course any errors remain my own." That is how gracious people (i.e. not assholes) treat those who help them. You seem to have found yourself an asshole to help. – Glenn Willen Jun 17 at 3:29
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    @GlennWillen the trick is to be able to recognize those before agreeing to help them. – Solar Mike Jun 17 at 4:55
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    "It was in rough shape, there was a lot of work to be done" - did you mention that in your critique? Not that it matters - you've done great and helped an ingrate graduate. – mcalex Jun 17 at 7:38
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    Just to be completely clear and explicit here: Yes, you're entirely justified in your opinions, and you've done absolutely nothing wrong. Besides, why would you want an acknowledgement in that thesis? Apparently it's embarrassing and filled with typos. – anomaly Jun 17 at 18:43
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    Reply to the email saying "No problem - next time you want me to rewrite a paper for you, my standard charge is $200 per hour, minimum 5 hours, payable in advance." – alephzero Jun 17 at 20:52

14 Answers 14

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"The only real critique I had on my thesis was that the chapter I sent you had typos. I went through this chapter again and found quite a few. In the future when someone asks you to review a chapter you need to carefully check and find typos because it's embarrassing to send a final thesis with a chapter filled with typos. Its disappointing when you rely on someone and they screw you I hope in the future you do a better job."

This is unfair. What happened was, at best, a miscommunication on their part. They somehow thought you would check thoroughly for typos, which you did not have time to do. Unless you told them "this chapter is perfect and doesn't need more editing", I have trouble imagining why they would assume the chapter was camera-ready.

Let me start off by admitting that I am able to see my fault in this. I could've (should've) done a more thorough job in editing.

I don't see that as a flaw. If anything, perhaps you could have communicated more clearly about what you were able to do, as well as what you did not do (thoroughly check for typos).

I feel ultimately it is their graduate thesis and their responsibility for its contents.

Exactly right, and this is truly the "bottom line" here. No one else is responsible for the content of your thesis but yourself. Getting help does not absolve you of the responsibility to proofread your own document and when you defend, you are supposed take full ownership over what is written.

what I do care about are the things they are telling other people about me (ie I screwed them, I'm lazy, etc).

The word for this is "bullying". This behavior is not acceptable and should not be tolerated by you or anyone else.

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    Thank you for this. I really liked your input of communicating more clearly about what I was able to do (concepts look great, didn't scan for typos though). In the future I will try to do this. – fractalflame Jun 16 at 17:49
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    +1: @fractalflame, I'll add: Many textbooks, theses, longer manuscript, etc. include acknowledgements noting that the author is responsible for mistakes: Ultimately, writing is the responsibility of the author, not anyone else. (Except when editors/typesetters/etc. add mistakes - that's on them.) – user2768 Jun 17 at 7:21
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    This is quite mildly phrased. I don't think it is reasonable at all to blame someone for typos, unless you either paid them, or they are your coauthor and you both agreed that they would do the proofreading for typos. Proofreading for typos is the responsibility of the author (or of the paid proofreader). Complaining about voluntary proofreading being incomplete is just unreasonable. – Earthliŋ Jun 17 at 9:43
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    Furthermore, note that no other "flaws" were found in the thesis. So you didn't let through any error of substance. And, like everyone says, it's not your job to look for typos in someone's thesis; in fact pointing them out could be seen as unkind pedantry. – Bennet Jun 17 at 13:50
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    Even if you told them the chapter is perfect, if they just asked as a favor it's still their responsibility to check. – Javier Jun 17 at 14:23
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You don't owe this person anything, were under no obligation to help them, and everything you do for them is done in a spirit of generosity and kindness. If they don't think you did a good enough job, that's their problem, not yours. If they don't want your help, they are under no obligation to ask for it.

It sounds to me that you did it exactly right, concentrated on the what the most important thing to improve was a the time - a poor structured and argued thesis might fail. One with typos is unlikely to.

Believe me, if this person is going round bad mouthing you to others, the only person it is going to reflect badly on is them.

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    "Believe me, if this person is going round bad mouthing you to others, the only person it is going to reflect badly on is them." That's how it should be. Perhaps a bit optimistic? Not that I strongly disagree. – Nobody Jun 17 at 10:35
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    Thank you, sometimes as a graduate student I feel obligated to do things and it's a nice reminder that it really is a favor, and anything I do is more than I have to. – fractalflame Jun 17 at 15:40
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    Doing favours for people is good. Not just for your conscience, but a person with a reputation for being helpful is more likely to be given help in return. However, this is never an obligation, and people should be grateful for however much is given. – Ian Sudbery Jun 17 at 15:54
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That student's response is obviously unnaceptable and quite rude. You should gently remind the student that ultimately they are responsible for their own work when they submit a document and if editing was so important to him/her next time they should hire an editor.

That being said, in the future it's a nice gesture to let others know ahead of time if you only looked at grammar or logic so they know what still needs looking over.

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    I tried communicating this point, didn't go over too well. I think it's a great point to communicate what editing was performed. Thank you! – fractalflame Jun 16 at 17:52
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    The challenge is if the student in question has a mental illness or is highly-manipulative, there may not be a way to communicate this successfully. This advice assumes you're dealing in good-faith with a rational actor. It seems likely that one or both assumptions may be incorrect. – bob Jun 17 at 17:38
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Once as an undergraduate I gave a professor a draft of a scholarship essay for review. I told the professor that it was a rough draft but that the main idea was there and that I'd appreciate feedback on the main ideas in the essay. When I got the review back, the professor was furious and proceeded to chew me out. I had wasted their time by giving them a draft with typos and mistakes which were obvious and could have been fixed with a good spellchecking and simple grammar review. Typos are a job for the spellchecker, not a tenured and revered faculty member. While I quickly developed an opinion that the professor was in fact not a very nice person, I think that they were right in some sense and ever since I've always made it a point to not send out drafts with obvious typos that are simple to fix, even if it's easy to say "sorry, rough draft, there may be some typos".

I share this because it sounds like almost the exact opposite situation from what you describe. While it's a good idea not to be a jerk about it, IMO it's extraordinarily rude for someone else to expect you to find typos in their own writing unless you are to be a coauthor on the work. I don't think you're responsible for the typos in the slightest.

Good communication is always challenging and it's hard to properly judge how you did there from the vague descriptions of text messages that blew up. It's also important to maintain good relations with your coworkers, so it might be worth re-examining how you engaged with them on the issue after your own feelings about it have settled down a bit. Perhaps you could have worded your response differently, started by congratulating them on passing to try to lighten the mood, etc, but this is more of a personal skill than anything. For what it's worth, if person X complained to me that friend Y failed to find typo's in person X's thesis, I'd think much less of person X more than anything - gossiping and trashing your coworkers like that is not ok.

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    Thank you. To be honest I felt attacked by the text messages and responded quickly and reactionary. I regret this, but I don't regret standing up for myself. This person absolutely refused to see any fault in themselves so I eventually conceded. Luckily this person is leaving, so this bridge burned isn't the worst case. – fractalflame Jun 17 at 15:44
  • +1 At least for me, it's pretty difficult to focus on the ideas hidden underneath poor writing and heaps of typos. When you're asking someone to do you a favour and review something, your should always at least run it through a spellchecker and read it yourself first. Just saying "sorry, rough draft" feels like "sorry for wasting your time, too lazy to spellcheck". – TooTea Jun 18 at 12:02
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This lab mate should take full responsibility for the contents of their own graduate thesis. Having a friend or colleague look over a chapter is fine, but it does not relieve the main author from that responsibility. The email that this person sent to you is unacceptable, and you should not feel bad.

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  • Thank you. I was feeling awful about the whole situation, but all these responses have helped me feel justified in my views, as well as helping me to prevent this from happening again. It's nice to hear the response this person gave is unacceptable, because I felt this way too. – fractalflame Jun 17 at 16:05
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"(...) Its disappointing when you rely on someone and they screw you I hope in the future you do a better job"
The rest of the text chain did not go well.

Oh man, I had to take a walk to cool down. I truly (and seriously) admire all the answers you got here and that none of them told you to reply to this guy to fuck off.

I've learned a lesson: I will focus on clear communication and setting expectations.

This is a good lesson to learn anyway, but do not expect that kind of person to have been grateful for the work you did. Whatever critique of their work they would have received would have been your fault anyway.

Good work in keeping your emotions at bay.

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    I was REALLY upset. The subsequent text messages, even after I apologized, really showed me this person has a fragile ego and is incredibly narcissistic. They have leeched off me for a while so this was the final straw. Still, I felt bad, but its so refreshing to have this community back me up and validate my position. – fractalflame Jun 17 at 16:14
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    @fractalflame: if they have leeched off you for some time then what happened is actually a big win for you. One less person to worry about. – WoJ Jun 17 at 16:21
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    Agreed. It seems like the kind of person that will leech off someone is the same kind of person that would have this reaction. Look up the Ben Franklin effect, once you do a favor for someone, you are more likely to do them another than if they had done you a favor. Some people use this to their advantage. I can't imagine a reasonable person hearing that you reviewed the chapter and it still had typos and thinking that you were lazy as opposed to he is lazy. – Jason Goemaat Jun 17 at 17:46
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    @fractalflame tried to find a suitable place to comment exactly what WoJ said: You have gained two things from this experience. One, you have learnt that you should not expect gratitude from people who do not have the capacity for it (I believe this is probably the origin of "no good deed goes unpunished"). And two you benefited by getting rid of yourself from a toxic person early, before they infected any more of your world. – Tasos Papastylianou Jun 19 at 6:22
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I've been in similar situations, and I've learned that people have different ideas of what "editing" or "looking over" means. If that happens, I am sure to be absolutely certain what the person is expecting, and what I will offer. I don't think you are to blame in this situation; use it as a learning experience and be sure to clarify the level of "proofreading" requested in the future.

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I often review papers for a certain college student, and always explicitly ask if they're looking for deep technical review of their writing - typos, punctuation, word choice, verb tenses - or more of a broad overview of the content (need more explanation here, rework this example, you haven't defined this term yet). And in any event - unless you edited & submitted it on their behalf, any errors still present when they submitted the paper were their responsibility, not yours.

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Others have already elaborated that you did not do anything wrong, and I have nothing to add to this. I will only address your other two subquestions:

What could I have done better?

While setting expectations could have prevented the entire affair (not that it was justified), there is another strategy. I review a lot of stuff for colleagues, students, journals, and so on, but I do not set any expectations beforehand. Instead, I review on every level (broad structure to typos) by default, in particular for students, as they benefit from certain issues pointed out early on.

However, I will remark every systematic error only once or twice. For example, if field names are inappropriately capitalised throughout the manuscript, I will only mark the first one or two occurrences. If not obvious, I will accompany this with a warning that I will stop marking this kind of error. In particular, I will not correct more than a handful of typos (of the kind that can be found by spell checkers), but simply remark:

colleauge → colleague (I will stop marking spell-checkable typos from now on)

I think this is a win–win situation: I do not need to proactively set expectations, I do not spend much unnecessary work, every sane person knows what they are up to, and in case I ever review for somebody as ethically challenged as your colleague, I have a solid defence.

I just ended up apologizing

This may depend a bit on your culture, but this sounds like a counterproductive move that will just enable your colleague. (“Fractalflame apologised; so they admit I am right …”)

What should I do now?

As others have mentioned before me, your colleague is probably rather making a fool of themselves than you. Still, remember that the entire thing is on print so you have rock-solid proof, should your colleague ever challenge your version of the story. Just memorise a few typos that a spell-checker could have found and that made it to the final thesis. In case this ever comes up in a way that requires you addressing this, you can cite them as evidence that your colleague obviously hadn’t run a spell-checker yet, and you didn’t want to rub that in.

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  • Apologies if this is off-topic: Often I review source code that has a whole lot of grammar and spelling errors in the comments, in a context where it's not immediately spell-checkable. What would your process be then? – Daniel R. Collins Jun 18 at 3:50
  • @DanielR.Collins: If the comments are your primary source of spelling errors, it indicates that the coding style is way off anyway. Most of those errors belong in variable and function names and docstrings. That being said, it depends a bit on the context, but there are indeed spell checkers for code so I would probably recommend to use one after the first few such errors. But this depends somewhat on the context. – Wrzlprmft Jun 18 at 5:21
  • True, variable/function name typos (and also just totally inaccurate descriptions) are common, too. Can you recommend a general code (or C++) spell checker? – Daniel R. Collins Jun 18 at 14:48
  • @DanielR.Collins: I was rather alluding to the wisdom that if most spelling-critical parts of your code are in comments, you have been overusing comments where you should have used docstrings or variable names instead. — I cannot recommend spell checkers for code. One of my many flaws is being too lazy to use one myself. (But then I am at least under the illusion that I do not commit that many typos in comments, docstrings, etc.) – Wrzlprmft Jun 18 at 14:58
  • @DanielR.Collins Regarding comments: If "bad practices" in coding are called "code smells", then comments are often used as "deodorant". Often, you can make code better by asking yourself the question "How would I need to code this so as to make this comment unnecessary?". – Lagerbaer Jun 18 at 22:28
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Let me start off by admitting that I am able to see my fault in this.

No.
Don't let your labmate shift the blame to you from himself. In all honestness, you made no error and there's no fault on your part. You did a voluntary review of a text he was responsible of, nothing more. It feels he is coping with the critique by finding someone to blame instead of accepting his faults.

Let me introduce my thoughts by a proposed reply, highlighting the core ideas:

Dear Lab Mate,

I received your letter and I'm glad to hear about your successful defense. I feel, however, surprised by your assertion of my responsibility regarding the typos.

When you kindly asked me to review your thesis, I was deeply occupied, as I mentioned in my reply. Nevertheless, I agreed to spend whatever little free time I could find with helping. I thoroughly read your thesis, and I made a number of comments I wholeheartedly believe were helpful. Assuming you already used a language checking tool, and given my restricted time I could spend with reading, I focused on the context and the structure of your thesis - as I mentioned in my reply - instead of spelling and grammar.

Reading your email, I was surprised that you believe I was in some way responsible for the typos in your final work, and at the same time, I am a bit disappointed to see that none of my suggestions were considered. This makes me believe there was a communication error regarding your expectations, and perhaps we should've make this more clear.

Though I was glad to help you, I believe the author of the thesis bears full responsibility for the context, and I did provide genuine help - whether accepted or not. What I saw was an intermediate version, and a final review should've been made by you, your supervisor, and possibly e.g. a spell checker tool, to filter out such errors as well. As I mentioned in my review, there were places seemingly unfinished, and I also suggested some major structural changes.

I'm sorry to hear that my voluntary help did not meet your expectations, but please note that I was in no way obliged to aid your work, and though I did everything in my limited options to improve your thesis, it's the writer who should finalize the content and decide whether it may be submitted. In the future, I would suggest communicating your expectations more clearly, and also leave enough time for reviewing your work in detail, instead of solely relying on other's voluntary help [note: and then shifting the blame on them] , to avoid such situations.

Thanks, and I wish good luck for the followings:

Fractal Flame

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  • I wish I had been that eloquent, sadly I responded in the heat of the moment. But I’m not sure I could’ve said anything to change this person’s feelings. – fractalflame Jun 17 at 22:16
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    @fractalflame please check my edit as well. You should not feel responsible in any way. And yeah, probably actually writing this reply wouldn't change anything but giving a sense of justice for you. Don't let this take tolls your feelings anyway - he is just probably finding someone to blame as coping with his own fault. This is his problem, not your's. Let it go, and invite him for a beer later if you feel like to. – Neinstein Jun 17 at 22:29
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    @fractalflame What I mean is: at this point, there's nothing to win or lose. The only thing you may do is help this person realize his own shortcomings, and aid him coping with the critique. Whether you choose to do so, or just let it go, is your choice. – Neinstein Jun 17 at 22:35
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    Reading you've been friends, I'd be even less passive aggressive, and probably just let it go, invite him to a beer/coffee/whatever, and just lightly discuss this in person. But don't take the blame. – Neinstein Jun 17 at 22:38
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You're in the right, but don't continue the flame war

The person who requested the review from you appears to be either mentally unstable (e.g. a wound collector; see: psychologytoday.com/us/blog/spycatcher/201509/wound-collectors) or extremely manipulative. Either way try not to inflame the situation anymore than it already is, silently cut your ties with this person, and move on. You now know this is not someone to work with or interact with in any way in the future. They're either going to mistreat you, or are potentially dangerous. You did nothing wrong, but it's time to walk away. If needed get professional advice on next steps. But whatever you do, don't continue the flame war (even though you're in the right), and be very very careful about any further interactions with this person. They may well be harmless, but their behavior is really weird, suggesting they might have a serious (and dangerous) mental illness (note: I am a layperson and not part of any medical profession; if concerned get advice from a professional).

Even if the student might be acting in good faith, just walk away

The third possibility I could see is that the student in question is extremely entitled, so they expect others to do things for them, and feel justified in chewing you out when you don't meet "expectations". In this case the student is being unintentionally rude. The problem is none of us answering over the Internet can judge which of the three is the case. You'll have to assess the situation and make that judgement call, and react accordingly. Which in my opinion, the best response in all three cases is to walk away. Nothing is gained, and poking the bear could be dangerous.

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  • Thank you. I know this person fairly well, and I guess you can never really know, but they don't seem dangerous to me. Luckily my personality is to deescalate and walk away, which I agree is the best thing to do. – fractalflame Jun 17 at 18:01
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    I believe this is way too strong an assertion. People often tend to respond to hurtful negative critics by finding something, someone, to blame, be it however unfair or irrational. This wouldn't mean they are mentally unstable in such a serious way, or even that they're a bad person even. – Neinstein Jun 17 at 22:44
  • Definitely, but the student's wording is way too strong assuming the question as stated is accurate. Hence almost all responses saying basically "you're totally in the right". It's hard to imagine a rational person thinking "you didn't find all typos for me --> you backstabbed me!". Doesn't mean the student is mentally ill, or a bad person; they could be highly-entitled. I've met such folks. But unless OP miss-characterized the situation badly (and I'm assuming they didn't), I'm finding it hard to ascribe the student's response as anything but pathological in some way (even if just entitled). – bob Jun 18 at 12:32
  • Even if the student knee-jerk gets mad, places blame, and quickly moves on, it's kind of a pathological way to do it, and I would seriously be wary of that student in the future. It's just not a normal response. Doesn't necessarily mean they're crazy, but it is...weird. – bob Jun 18 at 12:34
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Your colleague wrote "I went through this chapter again and found quite a few [typos] ... "

I would suggest to your "colleague" (who isn't acting very collegial) that it was clearly their responsibility to go through their chapters themselves prior to submitting their thesis. In addition to coming across as rude, they come across as inexcusably lazy.

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There is an old joke that goes like this:

A man is flying in a hot air balloon and realizes he is lost. He spots a man down below and lowers the balloon to shout: “Excuse me, can you help me? I promised my friend I would meet him half an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”

The man below says: “Yes. You are in a hot air balloon, hovering approximately 30 feet above this field. You are between 40 and 42 degrees N. latitude, and between 58 and 60 degrees W. longitude.”

“You must be an engineer” says the balloonist.

“I am” replies the man. “How did you know.”

“Well” says the balloonist, “everything you have told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost.”

The man below says “You must be a manager.”

“I am” replies the balloonist, “but how did you know?”

“Well”, says the man, “you don’t know where you are, or where you are going. You have made a promise which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problems. The fact is you are in the exact same position you were in before we met, but now it is somehow my fault.”

Long story short, some people just have a strong need to blame anyone but themselves for mistakes.

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Did you knowingly and willingly avoided telling him of his many typos, just to make him look bad? You don't mention this part; you simply say that it's not your job to do so. But if you knowingly didn't tell him of his typos, then while he was out of line in calling you out, you do have some responsibility in this. I've seen many lab mates that are utterly incapable of being happy for one another's success and will gladly, subtly sabotage each other.

If you didn't knowingly avoid telling him of his typos, then all the other answers and comments in support of you is fine.

But only you know the truth.

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  • I can’t imagine anyone actively trying to sabotage someone that way. We were friends up until this interaction and I’ve always wanted the best. – fractalflame Jun 17 at 22:35
  • @fractalflame Thanks for clarifying. The other answers and comments backing you applies then. Ignore him, even though that's an unfortunate route to take. Who knows, he might even come around to apologize someday, namely, once he settles into a new job and starts his life in a new direction. – Michael Jun 17 at 23:16

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