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I (scientist X working at lab A) have received several e-mails from one specific colleague (scientist Y working at lab B) regarding engaging in some specific project led by Y. Some of the ideas I could share are based on recent papers and one specific major work of mine, informally discussed between labs A and B. In general, both labs actively collaborate on some other projects.

I have declined both in-person and also via e-mail for this specific collaboration due to a lack of alignment/priorities. My general assessment is that sharing more knowledge minimizes the efforts and results of my own project. However, scientist Y has written multiple follow-up e-mails to me i) cc’ing multiple supervisors, which I consider unnecessary, and ii) asking for multiple technical/sharing points that I have already declined.

I consider the behavior from Y a bit off. Professionally, I consider it sufficient to accept/decline collaborations and ignore additional points directed to a single person, especially in group e-mails, after declining. I also cannot reveal additional know-how through those, due to COI. As an academic, I reply to most e-mails and share knowledge, but in this case, it is a bit of a predatory request.

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  • Have you discussed the options with your direct supervisor? If yes, and they are supportive of your position, and agree to the following, feel free to either ignore further emails, or reply to one cc'ing your supervisor and deferring further discussion to them.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 22:49
  • I don't understand the conflict of interest angle here, can you explain?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 22:49
  • @JonCuster My supervisor fully aligns with me and is supportive of my position.
    – Stierlitz
    Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 22:52
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    @Stierlitz - OK, then I as the supervisor would contact Y's direct supervisor and request that there be no further emails on the topic. My job is to protect my people, and attempts at bullying by others is just not OK.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 22:54
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    @Stierlitz I would only describe it as a conflict of interest if someone has an interest separately in each project. Otherwise, you just have some interpersonal conflicts. Overall, this arrangement seems strange to me - are you developing for some outside commercial interest? Normally there is no legal/official boundary between academic labs with different funding sources collaborating on the same projects. There may be practical ones surrounding making sure people get credit for work they do and avoiding situation where overlap makes one person's project moot.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 16:45

1 Answer 1

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My suggestion is, go have a quiet talk with your supervisor. Be sure to be in a calm mood when you do. Do the "go to your happy place" thing before. Explain the situation and ask for help.

I feel for you on the COI aspects. Congrats on being aware of it. In this office we are required to re-take the COI training at least once per year. Tedious! There are many aspects to it that are not instantly obvious until somebody points them out. The natural thing for an academic of wanting to talk about the work can turn around and bite you hard if there are paying clients involved. Or if there is intellectual property that has a monetary value. Even different departments of the same client may not be entitled to unrestricted access to the information.

Also, the aspect that this person is continuing to press and even escalating, that is worrisome. If they wanted to escalate after you said "no" then the thing they should have done is gone through the "command chain." They should have asked the "brass" in their lab to contact the corresponding people in your lab. They should not have continued to badger you.

Try not to make enemies. Try not to burn bridges. Either in your lab or the other lab. It is conceivable there is a way for the two labs to collaborate to everybody's benefit. It just may require some careful negotiation.

On the other hand, don't let yourself get crowded into violating COI. Or other ethical concerns. That can be really hard on your prospects.

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