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We are in a collaboration with another group, and our PIs have several papers and ongoing projects together (I am a 3rd year PhD student). They are experimental, we are computational. Around 1.5 years ago, they asked me to model something, which I did. Based on the model, several very cool and important observations were made, and since also I did not stop at only what I was asked for, but dug deeper, I managed to set up several interesting hypotheses. All of them are being tested, as they found them to be important questions.

On one of the first things we wrote a paper (I have shared co-authorship). I made all the figures of our models and several other panels, which were all to support or analyze these models. I spent days over a few weeks developing them (I am picky with colors, making sure they are accessible for colorblind people, things are aligned, fonts, etc.). Everybody said they were beautiful.

Fast forward, this paper came back from review. We agreed how we will rearrange some of the panels, move to supplementary or add. I again spent a day just to recolor things (one of the reviewers did not like one of the colors, and although exporting the figure in higher resolution would have solved the problem, we decided to make sure that they will like it, and changed it. But since these colors are used consistently across panels, almost all of them needed to be changed to accommodate this.) After the weekend, I needed to spend 2 days with preparing for a one-day retreat, so I could not immediately make everything.

After I came back, the collaborating PI asked me to meet with him. In the meeting, he showed me new figures - where he changed almost all of the panels that I have made (not just recolored, but remade from scratch using my models, except for one, that he also wants to alter). I did not confront him, as I felt very uncomfortable and quite upset and also realized that he does not have the slightest clue that this might be a problem. I needed to tell him however that the colors that he chose are almost indistinguishable from each other. His intention of remaking the panels was not discussed beforehand.

I told this to my PI, who immediately said that this is not okay, she knows that I have spent tons of time on this (this is a side project, but took away quite significant time from my main one). Later the day, she told me that she spoke with the other PI and told him that at least he should apologize. I met with him in the corridor later, but he did not mention anything about this, just asked me to send an editable format of the last of the former panels. I did not yet tell this to my PI, I do not want to tell on somebody else anymore.

I do not know what to do. We have several ongoing projects but I feel micromanaged and my time and effort disrespected. Honestly, I am very upset and feel like being used as a kind of a result producing machine. I also do not think that from a management point of view this is okay from a PI, especially if he is from another group, altering the representation of results that is coming from outside his group.

I would like to ask for suggestions. Should I just drop this matter, and at most only dump the future results on him and let him do whatever he wants? I can make more drastic measures e.g. dropping all the future collaborations but I would feel that I am overreacting. What do people think?

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    I'd personally think the best figures should be used, regardless of who put how much time into doing them. You seem convinced that yours are best, and you may well be right (I can't know of course). But it's not clear to me whether you properly tried to discuss and defend your figures? Did the collaborator give you reasons why they think their figures are better? Did you ask for the reasons? May 25 at 22:58
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    "[T]the colors that he chose are almost indistuingishable from each other." This can be a big problem for the approximately 1/6 of men who have some extent of red-green color-blindness. If the OP has this and the person who changed the figures does not, that issue needs to be addressed. People without color-blindness often do not understand this problem.
    – Wastrel
    May 26 at 14:34
  • My experience with joint papers is: multiple people are involved and everyone gets an input. In theory anyone can change anything. Even if it's annoying, just grit your teeth and go with it if it improves the paper. If you think their figures make the paper worse, discuss it with them. I had a similar experience where a collaborator kept insisting on re-writing the article in poor English, at least you don't have to deal with that.
    – Tom
    May 27 at 11:12

4 Answers 4

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  • There are both technical and emotional aspects to this question, I fully empathize with both.
  • I agree with answers that you should push to better communicate all of the aspects of your work that minimize problems with publication, respond to reviewers' comments and are likely to help likelihood and speed of acceptance, as well as the readability aspects.

But in addition to all of that, @WolfgangBangerth's

You aren't the "owner" of the figures.

Nicely isolates the tension between the lauded and encouraged concept of ownership in a place of work and just how much like sausage-making publishing collaborative research can be sometimes.

It also offers a way forward - the OP will no doubt be making many, many more figures (and of course actual scientific contributions!) in the future, and if things don't end up the way they would like this time for one reason or another, remembering that will allow the OP to find a way to let it go and move on to the next challenge.

If that does happen, then consider the Chinese finger trap. One can't move on to the next great things as long as one is focused on the tension at hand.

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Joint papers are just that: They are collaborations where, ultimately, everyone is responsible for everything. My take on this is that if I write some text, then it's fair game for every one of my co-authors to edit it. The same is true for figures, which just like text is just a means to convey information -- which is best done if everyone has input, and nobody is the "owner".

So, in my perspective, the failure in the collaboration is one of communication, not of management. You aren't the "owner" of the figures. You happen to be the one who has spent the most time on them, and so everyone who wants to edit them should probably talk to you about it (and explain their reasons), but just because you made them does not mean that you are best at doing so or have the experience how this kind of data is typically shown in your community -- things your PIs may well have more experience in.

So rather than spending your time feeling peeved and not wanting to talk to anyone about it, move your fingers to the keyboard and write an email to all the authors (or just the other PI) and explain your process in choosing colors, styles, etc., and how you think the figures should be changed in response to the reviewer comments. Then let others provide their perspective. It isn't a collaboration if you treat your figures as your property that nobody can touch -- of course, it isn't a collaboration either if the other PI just changes things, but give them a chance to explain themselves: you might actually learn something in the exchange.

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I think the best figures should be used irrespective who made the final touch on them.

But on the other hand be careful because your collaborator may act like this because they are trying to steal your co-authorship and become a single first author.

As a background story as a pre-PhD, I was writting a paper with the results of my Master thesis, where I was sharing co-authorship with a PhD student who was VERY manipulative. Since he was far longer in the group than I was, he knew that before submission the professor asked who made which figure to take a final decision on the author list/order.

While preparing the manuscript we split the plots that had to be done half and half, since we were both co-first authors. However during the revisions, he decided to move half of the plots I prepared to the appendix, and re-plot my plots in the main text. Then he went on trying to change my co-authorship to a middle author position, claiming that he did all the plots in the main text alone. (Although these were the results of my thesis and I developed the method, the code etc.) For the story he didn't succeed, but I had to change group to be able to fight him.

So to return to your story, be a little careful with that collaborator and try to find out why he decided to redo your work himself.

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    I do not like this answer since it seems to convey malicious intent. The last paragraph however, is the key. I once was the guy who re-did all the figures because the original ones were horrible. While they surely did convey all information properly, they disregarded all rules of typesetting and style: Different fonts, different sizes, red-blue color-scheme, impossible to print raster plots,… rather than to educate the original author on how to improve their figures, I decided it would be quicker just to redo it myself.
    – Hermann
    May 26 at 10:15
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    ‘ But on the other hand be careful because your collaborator may act like this because they are trying to steal your co-authorship and become a single first author.’ that just seems to be scaremongering, nothing in the questions implies that’s the case.
    – user438383
    May 26 at 12:11
  • @Hermann Replotting the figures is perfectly ok if you can polish them! Rerunning the simulations as is mentioned here ('not just recolored, but remade from scratch using my models, except for one, that he also wants to alter') is more probable to have malicious intent. Since the problem was the color he could have just replotted the data. May 26 at 17:18
  • @user438383 "not just recolored, but remade from scratch using my models, except for one, that he also wants to alter". May 26 at 17:19
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    @Hermann I find that approach as overstepping one's position. If one has issues with the figures, first discuss the issue and then let the responsible person work on this. By stepping in and (re-)doing other's people work shows that you don't respect their work and expertise (and probably trying to show that you can do everything alone or better). May 27 at 9:51
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she told me that she spoke with the other PI and told him that at least he should apologize. I met with him in the corridor later, but he did not mention anything about this

The very next thing you must do is call a simultaneous meeting of all three of you. This meeting cannot end until you all agree on which figures will be used in the final publication.

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