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I've been collaborating on a paper with a junior colleague and a senior colleague, among others. The junior colleague is the lead writer on the paper and has done about 85-90% of the research. Junior is an early-career researcher, senior is about in their 60s.

I've been noticing a very odd trend regarding the interactions between these individuals. The senior colleague seemingly has almost nothing positive to say to the junior colleague. They are hyper-critical of their work, constantly invalidates whatever the colleague has to say, and never provides constructive feedback or responds positively to the junior colleague's suggestions. They never try to be constructive and offer alternative suggestions for what the junior colleague's sees in their data, they just say "no, you are wrong". The closest thing to a positive statement they have made was a backhanded compliment.

The senior colleague has been increasingly trying to monopolize their contributions to the manuscript and force out the lead author's contributions. Notably, the two did not mutually agree to be collaborators but ended up as strange bedfellows due to the actions of a fourth party, the junior didn't like the idea but initially said nothing because they wanted to "be a team player".

Several times the senior colleague has actually pulled unpublished data out of their own lab just to be able to say the junior colleague is wrong. This is data that none of the other collaborators are able to cross-verify due to our labs being located in different countries. Notably, this unpublished data only ever invalidates the junior colleague conclusions, the colleague never says "oh yes, this resembles some of my data". Based on the pattern, I almost wonder if the senior colleague is cherry-picking data from their material to do this. The senior colleague does not have access to the specific material we are working on, they are using data from a closely related biological taxon. When the junior colleague pushed back and said (and showed) they had data to support their original assertion, the senior colleague snapped at them and said they had been in the field longer than the junior colleague has.

The junior colleague is getting pretty distraught about the intensity of the criticism and has actually confided in me they think the senior colleague does not like them because prior to this collaboration the junior colleague disagreed with the senior on one of their research theories and according to the junior colleague the senior took it poorly. Notably, that topic was unrelated to the one we are currently working on. The junior colleague is a fairly diligent worker and while they could be wrong with some of their conclusions the extent of the senior author's criticism would imply almost all of the junior author's conclusions are wrong. In a couple of cases the junior author seems to have been right, in some the senior, but I have been unable to evaluate all the criticisms back and forth due to volume.

I have been debating whether it is worth getting involved and saying something. I've been sitting on the fence about this because criticism is a key part of the scientific process and it's entirely possible the junior author could be wrong with their hypotheses. However, it's the broader consistency of these hyper-critical responses and the fact that the senior colleague only ever seems to criticize the junior makes me suspicious if these criticisms are coming from a place of good faith. For the most part, the senior colleague has technically never said anything wrong but the broader pattern is concerning.

At what point would behavior like this cross the line from legitimate scientific discourse and "the data says what the data says" to academic bullying or harrassment that someone needs to step in on?

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    Does the senior say "no, you are wrong" or do they say "no, your argument is wrong"? That is, are they criticizing the researcher or the research?
    – shoover
    Sep 13, 2023 at 18:21
  • @shoover It's a little of both. The lines are blurred and in a couple of cases (as mentioned above) the senior author seems to invoke their seniority to say that they are right and the junior is wrong. It comes off as "your argument is wrong and you should have known better than to make it". Sep 13, 2023 at 18:56

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If the criticism is focused on the research itself, then it isn't harassment. It only becomes harassment when the criticism becomes that of the person ("you idiot" and such).

There are borderline things ("you should know better") of course, but some of that should be discounted as just emotional outbursts, not actual harassment. And if the person tries to sabotage the career of the junior, then it is pretty clearly out of bounds. Denigrating the person to others, for example is a form of harassment.

But you seem to be in a good position to intervene assuming you have tenure or its equivalent. You might be able to "have a quiet word" with the senior member, pointing out that it isn't constructive.

I can't judge, of course, whether the criticism is warranted or not. Pushing the junior out of the collaboration is a red flag, of course. But if the research is flawed, it needs to be fixed.

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  • Yes, that's the thing. The research could be flawed, but the indications I'm getting is that the senior colleague might be looking for reasons to invalidate the junior and thus be biased to see error where there might be one. Criticism doesn't necessarily mean the senior colleague is right but a broken clock is right twice a day. Sep 13, 2023 at 17:09
  • I clearly remember as a young grad student explaining my idea on some data and having a senior collaborator look at me and say “Jon, that’s just bullshit”. And they were absolutely correct, so we could have a good science discussion on what was actually going on. It was not personal at all. Focus on the data, the interpretation, what it means. Being too “nice” does no good to a student - the toughest person to convince should be yourself and they need to learn that.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 13, 2023 at 18:22
  • @JonCuster One of the other issues, not mentioned in the question, is that the colleague does not seem to consider any information the junior author tries to present evidence to support their interpretation. Once the senior author has made up their mind, no evidence will sway them. It really doesn't feel like a debate over the best solution. Sep 13, 2023 at 18:54
  • @user2352714 - if the particular interaction is going the way you indicated, then indeed things are off the rails. But having contentious scientific discussions without getting personal is possible and even desirable.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 14, 2023 at 2:30

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