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I have, unfortunately, ended up working with a truly awful co-author on three separate projects. The problem with this co-author is easy to summarise: he contributes almost nothing to the projects, and yet he wants to make all the decisions. As you can probably guess, he is fairly senior (and substantially more senior than me).

To give an example, let me tell you about the second project we worked on. The co-author played no role in coming up with the idea of the paper. He played no role in designing the experiment on which the paper is based. He did none of the data analysis, and also didn’t write the paper up. In fact, he only saw the paper well after it had been circulated for comments! His only ‘contribution’ has been to take the completed paper, and then make some (terrible) edits to the finished version, thereby making it slightly worse.

Given his lack of contribution, you might think that he would feel lucky to be listed as a co-author at all. Unfortunately (for me), he doesn’t exactly feel this way. Instead, he thinks that he gets to make all the important decisions, including the decision of where and when to publish the paper. Moreover, he decided that we need to run some extra experiments before he will ‘sign off’ the paper for submission. That was over a year ago — and we still haven’t submitted the paper.

I could you about the other projects, but the story is the same. He contributes nothing to the paper until it is finished, at which point he makes some terrible edits. He then thinks that he gets to decide on everything — including whether his terrible edits can be altered and (more importantly) when and where we submit the paper.

You might ask why I ever agreed to work with him. The answer is that my friend (who contributes a lot to the projects) persuaded me to — and this coauthor is my friend’s employer. This makes it very difficult to resolve the situation.

I should perhaps add that this co-author co-owns the data on which the experiments are based. I think this probably makes it impossible to remove him as a co-author on the papers. In fairness, one could also view this as his contribution to the projects (he co-owns the company that has been running the experiments).

I really need some advice about what to do. On the one hand, I want to tell him how I feel about what he has put me through over the last two years. I have also considered contacting my university (and his university) to escalate my complaints. On the other hand, I feel pretty powerless here. What he has done is not exactly plagiarism, and he does co-owns the data which we use in the papers. In addition, he is fairly well known and could retaliate by trying to sabotage my career.

I should also explain the very specific conflict we have currently. We have recently finished our third (and final) project together. He has done his usual thing of making some terrible edits, right at the end and once the paper is completed. I now want to submit. However, he wants to delay submission (he won’t give a timeline), mainly so he has more time to make edits. Hence the conflict.

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    Just on the 'terrible edits' -- are they reasonable? If not, refer him/her to the rule book. Otherwise, I would just let it go. A senior person should in theory knows what is acceptable and the path(s) that lead to the most publishing success in a given area. In my area (engineering), I've seen poorly written but technically very sound papers. However, you may not feel happy to have authored such poorly presented papers. End of the day, people are interested in ideas -- you don't get cited for having written a nice looking paper. Mar 24 at 22:26
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    Can you clarify the question? Are you looking for advice on ending your relationship with this guy? On publishing the existing work? On something else?
    – cag51
    Mar 24 at 22:50
  • My question is mainly about how to go about publishing the existing work. He wants an unspecified amount of time to make further edits, perhaps so he can feel that he has contributed something (albeit at the final stage). Mar 25 at 8:34

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I suggest that you do what is necessary to get to the end of this project, even if it is somewhat unsatisfactory and just move on. If they have made some "decisions" on the structure of the project/paper then they probably can claim authorship and can probably just demand it in any case.

I assume that you also have valid authorship and can't be removed. You could, yourself, refuse to permit the work to be published, but I don't recommend that (actually recommend against it).

You can't prevent what this person will do to your friend no matter your course of action.

But move toward the exits and salvage what you can from this burning edifice. Don't bother to complain to him. It won't help anything. If he tries to remove you and publish without your authorship you can then complain to the publisher.

Sadly, this isn't a unique situation.

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  • Thank you for your comments -- I appreciate the advice. Mar 24 at 19:17
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    "Sadly, this isn't a unique situation." True. Academia is full of people with big egos who are used to make decisions and defend them against other people with equally bis egos. Therefore, OP could practice here how to communicate with such people (I am trying trying to find the positive aspect here). Mar 25 at 8:45
  • @apostdoc38933: I agree with this answer. Even researchers who are very friendly and nice people outside of academia tend to, when they have seniority, freely use arguments from authority (e.g. "you should do what I say because I have got many papers published and you have not!") to get their way. It is worse in your case (i.e. unfriendly and awful), so just get it done by whatever means and then leave the toxic relationship as fast as you can.
    – user21820
    Mar 25 at 10:14
  • @user21820 To me, the original post sounded more along the lines of "I give you the money, manpower and equipment to run the experiments so I get to sign off on your projects". Chest thumping about papers published for this kind of PIs/contributors is important on an earlier stage, when they get to the power to make those decisions in the first place. And some are good administrators, but bad scientists. Not all of them are able to completely give up on their desire to be at least a little hands-on with research even when they can't do it competently any more.
    – Lodinn
    Mar 27 at 4:45
  • @Lodinn: Definitely not. The asker wrote: "He did none of the data analysis, and also didn’t write the paper up. In fact, he only saw the paper well after it had been circulated for comments! [...] He has done his usual thing of making some terrible edits, right at the end and once the paper is completed.". Both of these indicate that the person is not at all attempting to still do some research, but rather being an obnoxious boss.
    – user21820
    Mar 27 at 5:19
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This sounds very familiar. I once worked for a PI who behaved in a very similar way, down to the total lack of participation, the terrible edits, the arrogance, and the insistence on being in charge. In one case, the edits consisted of some wording rewrites and adding his name in various places in the author contributions where it didn't belong. He then finished off by sending us (his co-authors) a lecture on grammar by email.

The project I was working on (two of them) were both sort of derived from his "intellectual property". And I think one of the projects used data he provided.

I don't think I have much advice to offer except to say that it sounds like there is little if anything you can do about this. Your problem person realises, I'm sure, that he has leverage, and that there is little you can do. Also, based on my experience of academia, complaining will almost certainly be useless, and possibly worse than useless, if your co-author learns of it. Sorry.

I also imagine this sort of thing is not uncommon, at least with PIs dealing with his/her own students/postdocs. It might even be common. For obvious reasons, data about such things is hard to get. My experience on working in collaborative projects is that "senior" people are extremely disinclined to do any actual work on the project, though they are more than happy to have their name on it. My impression is that this is how (some) people get ahead in academia, by taking credit for other people's work. The capitalist analog is obvious.

Your case is different, in that you are dealing with a colleague's employer. The good news is that because this is the case, you can get away from it relatively easily.

I suggest finishing the project with him, if you can, and I also recommend that you avoid, if possible, starting new projects involving this person in the future. Because the stress is probably not worth it. You say you've worked on three different projects with this person. That seems like a lot, and I would avoid a fourth unless there is some truly compelling reason for it. Also, I would not stress about the unfinished project. It sounds like there is little you can do to speed it up without creating more friction, and it's probably not worth it. But don't withdraw from the project either. It sounds like it will probably move forward and get published eventually.

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  • "The capitalist analog is obvious" - yes, but in capitalism, they are not taking credit for others' work. Instead, they claim that greasing the cogs of the machine may be adding more value than being another cog. To me, being the Big Boss is a ton of responsibilities taking you away from what you actually love doing so that it would get done better in general. Hardly an enviable position. For all we know, this stereotypical "lazy boss" from OP's description might be working their ass off trying to get funding and approval for the project and the rest is them coping.
    – Lodinn
    Mar 27 at 4:56
  • @Lodinn No, but they are profiting from others work. Hence the analogy. "Credit" has no meaning in capitalism. Mar 27 at 8:53
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I have, unfortunately, ended up working with a truly awful co-author on three separate projects.

Well, that's the problem right there isn't it; that number is two too many.

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    This doesn't seem to give any useful advice on dealing with the author's current situation. It does seem to say, "don't get into those situations," but doesn't provide any advice on how to do that, either.
    – cjs
    Mar 25 at 5:25
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    +1...the question is "what should I do" and the answer is "stop collaborating with this guy." An ideal answer might explain how to wind down the collaboration and publish the existing work, but that's tricky because the optimal course of action will depend on the personalities involved (and perhaps the technical details too).
    – cag51
    Mar 25 at 6:24
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    It might be three projects which were started concurrently, for all we know. The question does say this ordeal has lasted for two years, but that doesn't necessarily mean that any additional commitments were made after it became clear that this person wasn't a good collaborator.
    – kaya3
    Mar 25 at 9:14
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    @kaya3 That'd be still an overcommitment then.
    – Lodinn
    Mar 27 at 4:48

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