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I am a researcher and professional in the social science field, writing a paper in the field of Computer Science together with CS colleagues to be submitted to an interdisciplinary journal, which is in Q1 for all of us.

The authors have the following contributions:

  • the associate professor (male, last name position in the manuscript, same age as me) chose the technique to be used for the analysis and supervised the work of the PhD student;

  • the PhD student (female, first name, much younger than me) preprocessed the dataset, made the analysis and the figures (without asking for my opinion, so some of the results came out wrong);

  • I, the assistant professor, (female, second name) gave suggestions on some aspects of the analysis, the dataset, and the preprocessing, wrote the discussion section commenting on the results, and gave my opinion on their significance for scholars in my field. The idea of analyzing this dataset was mine, as I am the domain expert (although I am not a computer scientist, I publish, review, and organize conferences in this field);

  • the full professor (male, third name, much older than all of us) is the PhD student's supervisor and only read the paper drafts.

The problem is that the full professor is treating me awfully: he is very disrespectful in his tone and words when communicating with me, and he is rude in his comments on the paragraphs I wrote. He doesn't trust my expert opinion, challenging every word I write (e.g., when I comment on the results, he says he doesn't trust my interpretation and mandates that I add unnecessary explanations). He commented only on the text I wrote in a harsh way and did not say anything about the errors of his PhD student, who made many mistakes.

On the other hand, the PhD student has also been disrespectful to me, ignoring my expert opinion on substantial facts regarding the dataset (she can't assess the content because she is a computer scientist and has no knowledge at all in my field, the dataset is Greek to her), resulting in errors that a reviewer might point out.

The editor-in-chief of the journal is a professor in my field, so I am worried about losing face submitting this article, but on the other hand, if I opt out from the author list, they have no paper because I am the only one who understands the results and I wrote the discussion section.

So far, I did not reply to the full professor's messages and comments because I wanted to preserve the professional relationship. I only defended myself during meetings when he or the PhD student attacked me.

The associate professor has conflict avoidance issues and doesn't stand up for me.

How should I handle the situation? What is the academic etiquette in cases like this? Should I escalate this?

My former supervisor said that I should report the full professor to HR because the way he speaks to me is unacceptable. Would this have consequences against me in the long term?

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    Could you provide a specific example of "disrespect"? E.g., a personal attack? Rude behaviour? As of now, it seems that the professor doesn't agree with your point of view, assessments and interpretations. This is not disrespectful. If he said "I don't trust your interpretations" that may be disrespectful or not, depending on the context. Did he say he doesn't trust universally all possible interpretations you may bring? Or just this one?
    – Dilworth
    Nov 24, 2023 at 19:02
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    @Dilworth I cannot really give more details but I can tell you that I asked the opinion of other professors and they agree with me. Even the associate professor told me that he behaves like that with a lot of people and that's why he has a lot of enemies in his department. So it's not just me, this guy is problematic.
    – AkiPhD
    Nov 25, 2023 at 23:19
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    I don't think it's possible to give an objective answer the question presented without more details of what has been said. The advice this community could give ranges from "just ignore it and move on" to "this is a serious issue to take up with a faculty lead/HR dept." and without any further detail there isn't anything more we can help with.
    – David258
    Nov 26, 2023 at 15:58
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – cag51
    Nov 27, 2023 at 0:09

5 Answers 5

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Wait until you are treated like that by someone that is actually below you in the "pecking order". Yes, that happens, and, trust me, it is not easier to handle by people who are generally polite (esp. in an atmosphere that protects the aggressive against the courteous), even if they nominally have more power.

My advice, take it with some humour (it's not you it's them ;-) some indolence (oh, well), insist only on fixing hard errors that cannot be tolerated (recruit the help of your superior or someone with clout - if you have one - for that), keep tight until you finish the paper and don't work with them again.

Forget about expecting respect from certain people - the lack of respect may be just ignorance, or self-aggrandization, but sometimes it's an explicit strategy to make you malleable.

Right now, you are just trying to prevent blatant scientific errors from entering the paper. That's your mission. Complete it, and get out.

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    I agree with almost all of this (and +1 for a good answer), but not the part about only fixing errors that cannot be tolerated. I think that is getting a bit petulant, and letting interpersonal politics interfere with the desire to do the best possible work. My view is that it is better to revise/amend the paper for anything that would be an improvement to get it in he best form you can.
    – Ben
    Nov 27, 2023 at 5:21
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    @Ben Not sure why that would be petulant? The idea is to insist only on absolutely necessary points. The OP complains that the prof engages in sloppy treatment of the analysis. What I was trying to say - maybe I failed - is that OP insist only on the most important matters rather than fight for minor points. Precisely the opposite of politics. I would have recommended 'any improvement', but given that every exchange with the prof seems painful, I intended to suggest one should limit the improvements to essential points. Maybe I misunderstood you; do you wish to elaborate? Nov 27, 2023 at 16:32
  • Your position is a reasonable one in my view, and perhaps we're proceeding from different readings/emphasis of the question. I suppose I'm of the view that the quality of work is so important that it is a good idea to push through painful interactions if they could improve the paper. I see the contrary as petulant because it allows a person's personal hurt feelings to interfere with an objective assessment of what makes their paper better for the reader. It is akin to punishing the reader for the sins of the co-author. Notwithstanding this disagreement, I think your position is defensible.
    – Ben
    Nov 27, 2023 at 19:54
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    @Ben Now I understand. Sometimes, however, one has to cut one's losses. I personally would prefer to spend intense time on something I can get to top level; and rather that fight for ages for bringing it to mediocre level, I would probably not invest more than needed to make it publishable. A fight needs to be worth the outcome. Nov 28, 2023 at 1:01
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Without a lot more specific context it is difficult to judge what you should do. The answer of Captain Emacs seems to be pretty good advice, however.

But let me point out that there is a vast (vast) difference between "This argument is garbage" and "You are garbage for making this argument". The former is merely (very?) impolite and may be an overreaction. The latter is unacceptable.

If it is a matter of the former then the proper course is to provide reasons that the argument is correct. In the latter case it might be necessary to complain to someone who can speak with authority to the offender. And, in the long term, work with others who behave better.

It might even be necessary to provide background materials to the one complaining about your contributions as they may have misconceptions, being from another field. That may or may not make any difference, depending on their general character, of course.

But at least, consider whether they are speaking about the "thing itself" or about you. Not the same thing at all.

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    He indeed wrote to me messages like "I am tired of your way of working", blaming me for delays his student caused in the first place, and demanding that I do non-paid work (the PhD student delayed the article until my contract was over, and I had to do her job in the main project. Everyone else in the project complained about her inactivity to the point that we had to file a formal complaint against her to the PI). I told him I am in another project (I won an EU grant) so I could not give priority to this paper anymore and he got mad at me.
    – AkiPhD
    Nov 24, 2023 at 13:52
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    I think a direct insult is actually easy to respond to. Far more insidious and difficult to battle are the subtle putdowns. "I am tired of your way of working" - now, this is ambiguous; it may or may not be an insult, maybe just impatience. It might be that they just have a different style. Do you have a stronger example for a putdown? This remark is something I would probably counter with "I am sorry, but I have to insist on this because [the analysis is incomplete/the case is more complex/etc.]". Maybe however, consider if there is something in the working style you might adapt. Nov 24, 2023 at 14:04
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    @AkiPhD Hmm, is that Germany, perhaps? Nov 24, 2023 at 14:20
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    @CaptainEmacs Well, Germans are often perceived as rude, but even to a German "I am tired of your way of working" sounds actually quite offensive. At least to the one German writing these lines... Nov 25, 2023 at 22:01
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    @HenrikSchumacher To be honest, it was just a wild guess, but I can imagine an old school prof in Germany saying this without a nasty intention, just exasperated (after all, we have only one side of the story here, but understand that I am not saying that the prof is right). Context matters. I have seen much ruder and nastier behaviour behind an apparently polite facade. Nov 25, 2023 at 23:09
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Joint research in academia is a bit like dating, except that the first date lasts about a year. We sometimes try people out, doing joint work with them on an initial project, but then we find that we just aren't compatible and don't work well together. In general, it is useful to maintain politeness on this first date and "grin and bear it" if the other person has some traits that are annoying. We work through these difficulties until this initial project is over and then make a resolution not to work with this person again. In view of this, my recommendation here is multi-faceted:

  • Since the negative comments, criticism, etc., pertain to the research work and writing (as opposed to being extraneous criticisms unconnected with professional work), I recommend you treat this as valid academic scrutiny of your work and do your best to revise the work to improve it in the face of these criticisms. With regard to the disrespectful tone, etc., you can "grin and bear it" for now, or push back proportionately if you feel comfortable doing so. Irrespective of this, assume that the critique of your work by this senior professor is prima facie valid and revise accordingly. It is possible that the criticisms of your work are unreasonable, but since this professor is more experienced than you, another plausible possibility is that there are things he knows that you don't yet, and if you revise your work to deal with his criticisms then you might improve it.

  • After you have completed the paper and its revisions, you will need to make a judgment on whether or not to work with this professor again. From what you have described it is not a good working relationship and you should probably avoid future collaborations. However, you should still conduct a "retrospective review" of the project and ask yourself some hard questions --- e.g., Was my work and writing improved by the critiques from this professor? Did I learn anything valuable about research or writing from this process? In general, were the critiques of my work reasonable responses to previous deficiencies?

  • There is an aspect of your question which raises a red-flag for me, and it is something for you to think about. You say that your "expert opinion" is being ignored and that this professor is "challenging every word I write". Well good for him. In academia it is good practice for all of us to expect and demand that we can justify what we say with explanation rather than with assertions of expertise/authority. Likewise, it is good practice to expect that everything we write can be subjected to scrutiny and questioned, and we ought to be able to respond to such questions with explanations and/or revisions. In general, academics and practitioners who get into the habit of demanding deference to their asserted expertise instead of giving explanations of their reasoning (especially as a way of heading off questions about their work) either are or become incompetent practitioners. The physicist Ernst Rutherford is attributed as saying that "[a]n alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid", so surely you ought to aim to be able to explain your reasoning, work, and word-choices to a senior professor in your field.

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I do not know the situation, but were these comments received in email (or writing) or in-person?

Personally, I think I tend to give very direct feedback, no extra 'fluff' in when giving written feedback. It is simply more efficient to write comments which are to the point, e.g. 'grammar' 'spelling', 'makes no sense' etc. than to try to tone it down. In person, I hope I come across as more friendly.

I remember getting detailed critique as a young researcher, and it felt harsh at first, but looking back, it was very valuable to me. Getting detailed suggestions on improvements (if constructive) is extremely valuable even though in the moment it feels like an attack. But one needs to see the difference between 'this sentence is bad' and 'you are bad'.

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Receiving harsh comments is not easy to deal with, but I don't think there is anything disrespectful unless the professor makes personal comments. I believe there is an obvious line between providing critical feedback and making statements about someone's abilities.

Example 1:

Harsh Professor (HP hereafter): I think your statements are completely nonsensical. I don't even understand how it's possible to obtain such results. I believe we should rewrite everything from scratch. I am not confident at all about the methodology you are using.

Example 2:

HP: I think you are stupid enough to get such nonsense results. I think you should be fired from your job due to a lack of basic analytic skills.

I believe the difference is quite obvious. Even though the statements in the first example are harsh, there is nothing personal, unlike in Example 2, and there is no personal attack on your personality or skills.

As long as you do not receive remarks similar to Example 2, you can either dismiss them and not work on further projects in the future, or simply communicate to the professor (and their PhD student) that their way of communicating does not align with yours and it affects the progress of the work in question.

In case of receiving comments similar to Example 2, I would have stopped working with those people, regardless of whether the project is promising or not.

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