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Background: I am a junior postdoc who has been working for some years with an overseas collaborator who is much more senior. I have previously had no issues at all with this collaborator. For the last few months, I've been working on project A. I came up with the idea for project A on my own, and have been leading the analysis - my collaborator has only been involved in giving me feedback during meetings. Meanwhile, this collaborator has a PhD student at her institution who has been working on project B. They are under a lot of pressure to publish project B, as the data on which it is based becomes public in a few weeks. Projects A and B are similar in terms of the methods and the type of data involved, but use entirely different data sets, and are focused on entirely different systems which are in themselves not similar at all.


A few days ago, I gave an update on project A during an online meeting. In attendance were myself, my collaborator, and some other collaborators, including a couple of people I'd only met once or twice.

As soon as I finished giving my update, my collaborator became quite upset, seemingly out of nowhere. She said she didn't like how similar project A is to project B, and sort of implied that I'd piggy-backed off her PhD student's research, and said that I needed to add her student to the paper. She said we need to protect grad students in the current environment of fast-paced research (which I 100% agree with), and that she did the same for me when I was a student (which is completely true). As all of this was happening my body kind of kicked into fight-or-flight mode, so I can't actually recall anything she said exactly, but the way she was talking, she was clearly very exasperated. It got so heated that one of my other collaborators interjected to defend me at one point.

In the moment, I apologised profusely and said it wasn't my intention to "scoop" her student, and that I'd add them to the paper (which honestly doesn't bother me).

After the meeting I was extremely shaken and upset. The things she said really hurt, because project A is really the first project I conceived on my own, and I had been feeling positive about the work I'd done. I also felt like she'd humiliated me in front of my other collaborators, and that she'd possibly tarnished my reputation in their eyes, particularly those I don't know very well.

The thing is, I don't really understand where she is coming from. I only became aware of the details of project B about a month ago, after I'd already completed most of the analysis for project A. I absolutely did not take any ideas from her student to use in my own work. In fact, the analysis I've done for project A is similar to previous projects I've worked on with this same collaborator, and are not anything particularly novel. Also, she's been aware of project A for quite some time, and has never mentioned getting her student involved up until this point. Finally, in my opinion, project A and project B do not really compete - they focus on entirely different systems and use different data, so I don't understand why she thinks my work is threatening that of her student. If anything, they complement each other. I suspect she is feeling a lot of pressure to publish project B, and I wonder whether I might have just caught her on a bad day.


My question is, should I say something to her about how I feel, or should I just let it go? I've been turning it over so much in my head that I really need an external opinion. I want to clarify why exactly she is upset with me, to explain my perspective, and to let her know how she made me feel. However, I'm afraid that if I talk to her about it, it will only make matters worse. What should I do?

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    I think this is very difficult to answer without knowing the involved people and their personalities. Maybe, was there somebody experienced present during the meeting whom you trust and who you could ask for advice? Commented Jun 11, 2022 at 14:59
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    @hanktheshank, You wrote "She said we need to protect grad students... and that she did the same for me when I was a student (which is completely true)". Does it mean you were her student in the past, and she protected you during that time ? Commented Jun 12, 2022 at 6:27
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    @JochenGlueck that's a good idea, there was another colleague present with whom I've worked with for a long time (he was the one who jumped in to defend me, actually) - I'll talk to him about it. Thanks! Commented Jun 12, 2022 at 7:57
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    @Job_September_2020 she was one of my secondary advisors during my PhD, although I can't recall any specific instances where she "protected" me as such. Still, she helped me a great deal during that time with my work. Commented Jun 12, 2022 at 7:59
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    @uhoh I honestly have no idea. I was completely blindsided by it. I didn't present anything particularly unusual or unexpected, I thought it was all pretty standard analysis actually! I like to think she wouldn't knowingly and cynically put me on the spot like that, but I really don't know :/ The more I think about it, the more I think she might have just been really stressed about her student, and let it out on me. Commented Jun 12, 2022 at 10:20

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My question is, should I say something to her...

It sounds like you have an ongoing collaboration with this person, and there is still some work to do before these get published. So, a private follow-up conversation would be appropriate.

...about how I feel...? ...I want to clarify why exactly she is upset with me, to explain my perspective, and to let her know how she made me feel.

I would suggest that the purpose of this follow-up conversation should be to (1) resolve any misunderstandings and (2) clarify the path forward. Try to minimize the discussion of feelings and grievances.

Beyond that, I would "follow your nose" a bit here. Hopefully the conversation will be amicable and it will go without saying that you hope situations like this could be avoided in future. But it may be necessary to mention that you didn't appreciate her conduct in the meeting and hope that this will not happen again.

I apologised profusely and said it wasn't my intention to "scoop" her student, and that I'd add them to the paper. ... project A and project B...focus on entirely different systems and use different data

It is understandable that you panicked in the moment, and now that you have agreed to add the student as a co-author, you may have more limited options. Still, normally adding an author who has not made an intellectual contribution would be considered misconduct. So, you may want to think carefully about whether this is appropriate. Maybe the student could make some contribution to your paper so that they could honestly earn authorship.

Moving forward, of course, you may want to practice the (difficult) skill of not panicking, speaking slowly, and not committing yourself to things in the moment. "I see things a bit differently [or, think there might be a misunderstanding], but why don't we table this for now and discuss offline" is a good go-to phrase.

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    Thank you for the advice. I will certainly give the student an opportunity to contribute to the paper, even if only in a minor way (in my field, it's pretty common for students to be tacked on to papers in this way, for better or worse...). I will have a chat with another of my collaborators to get his opinion on the situation, and approach her if I still feel it is necessary after that. Unfortunately I tend to freeze up in conflict situations due to childhood trauma, but you're right, I really need to work on my skills in this area. Commented Jun 12, 2022 at 10:42
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First, my advice is to let it go and see if if simmers down. If not, then you may need to speak up.

It is hard to diagnose the problem with little information, but some people just behave badly under pressure. I think that is what happened to her. She is a bit lost on some issues and let her frustration spill onto you. I don't think it was fair, but things happen.

FWIW, I think you have behave generously up to now. I'd suggest letting that continue as long as it is a viable path. You see more than I can, of course.

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  • Thanks Buffy - yes, having thought about it more, I suspect I walked unknowingly into the firing line of her pent-up stress about her student... Commented Jun 12, 2022 at 10:44

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