Here's the scenario. I am an expert in a subject X and I would like to combine it with method Y to do something new. I have a distant connection to someone who co-authored a book on Y and I approached him suggesting a collaboration. He responded positively as X is interesting to him.

My collaborator then pulled in a PhD student to look at the problem but he was not good and nothing happened. He has now pulled in another PhD student but his work is equally disappointing. I think he must have spent a week putting together some really buggy code that does not do even the simplest version of X. In the meantime (about 2 months) I think I have learned enough about Y to be able to do the whole thing myself. So I am not longer sure if there is any value to me in the collaboration, especially as getting the students to do the work right may take longer than me doing it.

Would it be reasonable to ask to end the collaboration ?

3 Answers 3


Would it be reasonable to ask to end the collaboration ?

Short Answer

Yes and no. Collaborations established as you outline are mutual investments in future promise, not official (legal, written) contracts in shared workload or in shared distributions to any returns in investment. However collaborations entered in the way you that have outlined are not just street-corner banter about hopes for shared adventures at some future point. In short, what is reasonable to do for a lack of contractual obligations may be unreasonable (and disrespectful) to do preemptively if not unilaterally in respect to (written and time-honored) codes for professional conduct.

Longer Answer

Perhaps. Consider these questions.

  • You hedge about the level in investment you will need to make to do the work versus the investment for your collaborator to train a student do the work "right". Presumably you mean no insult because of course you will also have to do the work "right" (whatever that means). Are you certain that you have gauged well enough the distinction between what you will have to invest versus to do the work "right" versus what a properly prepared student under structured mentorship might be able to do "right" (and perhaps even better than you) given the same time + resources?

  • Have you considered the alternative that, with your supposedly new-found insights, you could propose to take charge to provide a student who will meet the criteria that are needed (because you presume to know as much now as your collaborator)? Have you weighed this option as a way to allow you to continue the shared collaboration?

  • You are at liberty to make a preemptive, unilateral decision to end the collaboration. However, in the same line as the approach you took to ask for help, have you considered whether all that you need to do is ask for a hard discussion to air your frustrations and re-align the collaboration more closely to your growing awareness?

  • You did not state whether you made verbal agreements upfront on the eventual distribution for products from the collaboration such as intellectual property, publications, or patents. If so, what considerations do you have and do you believe that your collaborator has regarding how a breakup in the collaboration should change those agreements?

In summary, whatever your decision, approach making it with the same respect that you took when you approached the colleague to initiate the collaboration. What were your interests when you started the collaboration and how well informed is your collaborator now about your growing frustrations because your interests are no longer being met?


It's certainly reasonable to ask to end a collaboration that is unfruitful, but the request should come with a discussion about what credit (e.g., acknowledgments, authorship, etc.) are already owed in relation to the inchoate collaboration.

In this situation, I'd recommend an opening communication with your distant expert connection letting him know that you're not happy with the progression of the project, you think the collaboration is not working, and you'd like to have a discussion about how to dissolve the collaboration in a manner that gives all parties proper credit for their work. You should acknowledge that you were the one who initiated the collaboration and you should avoid making any criticisms of any errors made on their end for the moment. (It might be fruitful to have some kind of a debrief later where you both do a quick audit of why the collaboration didn't work, and what you can learn from that failure, but that would come later.) Bear in mind that your collaborator might prefer to continue the collaboration, but be open to making changes to his practices to improve things for you (e.g., do more of the work himself instead of giving it to his PhD students). Decide in advance whether you are open to a reform of the collaboration as opposed to ending it, and if you are, what you would require for things to work. In any case, the first step would just be to start a respectful discussion where you can chat with each other to see if the collaboration can be salvaged, and if not, what a fair dissolution of the collaboration might look like.


To add to what Jeffrey already wrote:

It is like (to a certain extent) asking how to end a friendship because one becomes able to enjoy watching a movie (or doing anything) alone.

These kinds of issues in voluntary/non-binding collaboration are very common and justifiable. It is maybe very important for you to incorporate Y in X but for the other party, it might be just a nice idea that is worth realise. I presume your collaborator is a professor or a team lead who has a lot of duties and projects to complete. The same thing for his/her PhD students whose theses might be on a different topic. They can also be new in research and, normally, they do not accomplish anything.

Now back to what to do:

Preferable solution Since you mentioned that you master Y now, did you consider co-supervising the PhD students (in this specific project I mean)? With this, you strengthen the collaboration, support your collaborator and help junior researchers do research.

Acceptable solution You realize the idea yourself but you still consider the other party collaborator who can co-author your findings. --although your collaborators do not realize the idea with you, they spent time trying to realize it and they gave you consultancy in Y--

Not recommended but possible You ask for a meeting and inform your collaborators that you need to speed up the realization (I am pretty sure you have valid reasons) and you will try to do it yourself and that you can further collaborate in improving work or you suggest another idea that you can realize together without being pressured with time.

In summary, when the collaboration is established, it never ends even if the project is over. Instead, it is suspended until a new idea/project comes up and then you contact your former collaborator directly and you know what he/she is capable of.

  • 1
    I do not see why calling them up is not recommended - the arrangement as-is is not working out. Communication in these issues seems to be better than, well, silently doing your own thing.
    – Lodinn
    Feb 27 at 6:34
  • 1
    The PhD student is a student of the collaborator and is 5000 miles away. I could supervise them but I have no formal role to do that and to be honest, it's not my job.
    – DrD
    Feb 27 at 17:17

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