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Several years ago, my colleagues and I attempted to get a small paper published, it was rejected and we ran out of time - and as it was a 'side-project' type of paper, we left it at that. We thought that was the end of it - this was not the case.

One of the reviewers who made themselves known to us wrote some pretty terse messages to us about his disagreement with what was a relatively minor point. We graciously took his feedback as he is an established (published) researcher in that field. We moved on to different fields - which this reviewer has no published work in.

What has been happening since is that he will write an email questioning every single paper that I get published, not deliberately being insulting - but not offering anything constructive nor asking for clarification of the content etc. He has admitted that what I research is beyond his area of expertise - examples of his questions are (remember, these papers are collaborative and peer reviewed):

"Are you sure you know how to use (equipment)?" - when the paper stated a previously published (by a separate author) protocol has been followed.

"Are you sure you did enough trials?" - this would be fine as criticism, except the next email stated "That many trials seems like overkill" referring to the same paper.

One particularly unhelpful comment from him was "Did you actually pass high school English?"

Criticism is fine, and is sought for any and all work that we do, but when the statements do not offer anything substantial, are contradictory or just rude - this is not criticism, it is unhelpful noise -especially when it is posted publicly where we display links to the work (he deletes his comments soon after most of the time)

How do I deal with this persistent 'academic stalking' while at the same time, not make a 'fuss'?

  • 4
    Is he in a position to damage your career? – gerrit Sep 26 '14 at 14:44
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    I am curious whether this persistent critic acts this way to other authors, or if he has truly singled you out. (In other words, is he a stalker or merely an equal-opportunity jerk?) Regardless, this behavior certainly seems annoying, and I'm sorry that you have had to deal with it. – postdoc4J7 Sep 26 '14 at 15:07
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    Can you elaborate more on what these emails say? From what you've written, it's conceivable that this person has genuine concerns about your work and wants to let you know, but can't be "constructive" because he doesn't know how to fix them. Unless there are more details you haven't shared, calling this "stalking" seems way overblown: it's simply criticism, and when you share ideas you invite others to criticize them. That's how research works. – Nate Eldredge Sep 26 '14 at 15:16
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    @NateEldredge I would classify someone outside my field that choose to stay abreast of my publications and continuously criticize them as a stalker. A one time event is criticism, adding an author who you don't like that is outside your field to your "new records alert" seems like stalking to me. – StrongBad Sep 26 '14 at 16:46
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    "Did you actually pass high school English?" This person is a donkey. – Compass Sep 26 '14 at 19:34
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+500

A general strategy you can try here is "respond to amateurism with professionalism". Even if it looks like he's being unreasonable (as it currently seems to you that he is), just suspend disbelief, and, in a completely non-confrontational manner, engage his questions as if they were serious:

I always appreciate constructive criticism [true statement! you don't have to say that his was constructive, let him think what he wants...maybe he actually did think it was]. I didn't quite understand what led you to wonder whether I did enough testing of X. Did you see something in the results that made you suspect this specifically? Just want to make sure I'm not missing anything.

Thanks for your input!

Treat it exactly as if it were a sincere attempt to help, that you had a question about. It's possible (though I'm thinking you think it unlikely) that he really is sincere and has something to offer you. If so, wonderful! You get useful feedback from someone smart!

If he doesn't actually have a real question, this technique may make that obvious in a relatively non-confrontational way. Part of the value of it is that you are not simply being the victim of stalker-y behavior, but professionally and politely holding your ground. It is to be hoped that this will lessen the feeling of exasperation that would otherwise normally accompany this kind of childish bullying, if that is indeed what it turns out to be.

There are very intelligent and successful people in academia who are nevertheless woefully underdeveloped emotionally; one way this will be manifest is in the need to tear down other people who seem to be having success, or demonstrating skill, or garnering attention comparable to their own. This can catch one off guard when it's coming from a successful and respected person, because you would think that their success would be all they need to feel good about themselves. That, alas, does not turn out to be true. If it's a chronic emotional problem, you are unlikely to get him to change his behavior; hence the advice to concentrate specifically on blunting his ability to make his problem your problem.

If the cerebral approach doesn't work or becomes too time consuming, you can always set up a filter to send email from that address straight to trash....

Escalation (adding this section after your clarified and expanded examples indicate that mere polite discussion may not work here)

  1. [Fuss level: zero] Gather evidence. You don't have to do anything with it yet. Later steps I will describe will talk about possible uses. It's just good to have in case you ever get into a he said/she said situation and need to be able to back yourself up.

  2. Note that there is already a "fuss", to some extent. Not your doing. You can't choose to have this situation be "fussless", because the behavior is happening in public. The question is to what extent you wish to participate in the fuss.

  3. [Fuss level: low] A body of evidence might be useful for you to have handy if you wanted to petition a site administrator to block him from contributing comments. The sites hosting your research results and facilitating discussion don't want their work compromised by trolls.

  4. [Fuss level: medium] Does he work at an institution with a published policy regarding academic ethics? Spuriously calling into question the validity of your results seems like it would violate ethical standards. It might be enough for you to obtain a copy of the institution's standards, highlight the part that you consider him to be violating, and send that information to him, asking for him to comment on whether he agrees his behavior violates those standards.

  5. [Fuss level: high] Same as 4, but with more fuss. Contact the institution. Ask to speak to someone about the fact that you feel that one of their employees is violating academic ethics. Do they have a published policy? Can they send you a copy? Can you send them some redacted examples and have them confirm that they would consider that in violation? You would like to resolve the matter with the individual privately if possible, but you want to be sure that you are interpreting their standards correctly. Then, email the stalker and tell them that you've been in contact with the ethics office, not having mentioned any names of course, we can resolve this between ourselves, can we not?, and they agreed that the behavior is in violation of standards. Would he be willing to simply stop commenting on your work altogether in the future? It seems it would be better for both of you if he did. You don't have to threaten exposure--you should be careful not to threaten, actually (to avoid any possibility that you could be charged with blackmail or whatever)--just state facts.

  6. [Fuss level: nuclear] Put all the evidence on the web, unredacted, and send a copy to his boss, his wife, and his students. Let them know you really hate to bother them, but you need to ask them if they can contact his psychiatrist because he apparently needs his meds adjusted. (<-- not a serious suggestion, but it was cathartic to type!)

Serenity

Reflecting on others' answers and comments, I feel that one more section should be added here, because there are practical things you can do to help the situation, from your side only, with zero direct interaction. Although I would still gather evidence in any case (since it might be of value later should a dispute come to the surface), it is possible for you to improve your experience here by improving yourself. It's easy and natural to focus on the fact that he is the aggressor and by rights he should be changing his behavior, and to forget that, completely independent of whether he stops or not you can choose to become better at not being affected by baseless criticism.

Give yourself a mental picture of a small child attempting to attack an adult who calmly holds himself out of harm's way by virtue of having arms twice as long as his attacker. Your stalker has mastered the art of playing the flailing child--you can grow long arms.

Mentally rearranging your perspective on the whole situation can help. You can say "I am going to end up better for this by learning the valuable skill of ignoring trolls. Think what I would have had to pay a trainer for this, and he's providing me all this learning experience for free." It is, after all, entirely possible that you are going to run into other situations in life where the ability to be calm in the face of baseless or childish criticism helps you out immensely, and this is an opportunity to learn that skill in a relatively risk-free environment (as the stalker really has no actual power over you in this situation).

In short, you have, effectively, been focusing on the question "How can I get him to stop this behavior, without making a fuss?" But you can get an excellent result by instead asking the question "How can I get this behavior to stop bothering me?". The second question can be pretty much entirely in your own hands, and the things you do to work on it will help you in other aspects of your life, even enabling you to help others deal with similar issues, etc.

It's more than just ignoring (which, I think it should be said, is fantastic advice if you can do it--I haven't gotten to that point yet personally)--it's a conscious decision to rise above the behavior of the other party. Rather than "he's attacking me and I feel powerless to stop it without escalations that I am not comfortable getting into" it can be "he's attacking me, but I am using this as an opportunity to practice, and therefore develop the power, to not be affected by this behavior". From the outside it may look the same, but mentally, this kind of approach can make all the difference.

I think this is both the best option and the hardest to execute on. In the times when I have implemented such measures myself, I've found it to be incredibly empowering, and even in some cases ended up with unexpectedly good relationships with people that at one point had occasion (they felt, at the time, at least) to attack me, simply because I consciously decided that I didn't need to fight back. I don't think I've faced exactly the same situation as you are here, but I believe this might help you and sincerely hope it does--best of luck.

  • 6
    +1 for the email filter, actually that'd be what I would do at this point. – RoboKaren Sep 26 '14 at 19:19
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    yes, emails are filtered - however please note the edit I made (in response to comments), he also posts them publicly. – user21984 Sep 26 '14 at 19:22
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    @Omen If your public links are published on your personal blog / webpage you could require registration before anyone is allowed to comment. And then blocking his account. Or even disabling comments all together and keep one channel of communication (your email) if anyone wants to contact you. – Alexandros Sep 26 '14 at 19:46
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    +1 for "There are very intelligent and successful people in academia who are nevertheless woefully underdeveloped emotionally". – user8661 Sep 26 '14 at 19:57
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    @Omen I see from your clarifications that you are already past the place where my answer would be helpful--it appears that this person is simply trolling/abusing and that you would be wasting your time attempting to engage. My hope was that emailing him to ask for specifics would corner him into a "put up or shut up" situation. If he is actually posting contradictory comments on the same paper (and, just let me say, wow, this is really abysmal), it seems he is without integrity and an appeal to integrity is not going to work. I will edit my answer when time next permits. – msouth Sep 27 '14 at 14:01
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Ignore the emails.

The common justification for these kind of situations is a need for attention from that person. By answering his calls you are only reinforcing this need.

  • I agree that it's not a good idea to give him the offended and defensive reply that he wants. But I doubt that a serious reply, as in msouth's answer, would give such encouragement. – Moriarty Sep 27 '14 at 23:25
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    msouth's answer about pretending your stalker is well-intentioned is good advice for a first time offender. You've probably already been doing that. This sounds borderline crazy at this point and I think ignoring is the correct course. – Benjamin Mako Hill Sep 28 '14 at 3:03
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    Your answer is probably a useful strategy to end the unwelcomed comments. But one can look at this situation as an opportunity to learn about how people can criticize our works. And by answering reasonably to his comments, one can practice his/her skills in defending his ideas and his works. So I am not a fan of cutting the conversation as soon as it gets annoying. – user4511 Sep 28 '14 at 17:21
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    @VahidShirbisheh, "Did you actually pass high school English?" IMO is not annoyance - is rudeness. Since I don't see any reason for the person to be rude, I assume it derives from a need of attention, and I thus suggest to ignore it. – Jorge Leitao Sep 28 '14 at 18:41
5

You provide your best answer in your final question: "How do I deal with this persistent 'academic stalking' while at the same time, not make a 'fuss'?" Don't deal with him and don't make a fuss. You might be interested in the following 2 links:

Troll (Internet). (2014, September 25). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 07:37, September 28, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Troll_(Internet)&oldid=627020408

Hoy, A. (2014). slash7 with Amy Hoy » Blog Archive » Help Vampires: A Spotter’s Guide. Slash7.com. Retrieved 28 September 2014, from http://slash7.com/2006/12/22/vampires/

Don't waste your time with him.

  • I also think that this is not so much an academic problem but a personality problem. I had a similar colleague - just about any way to react that you would deem reasonable was ignored, ridiculed or similar. If I was right, it was ignored. Try the good, reasonable approaches given here, and if they fail, ignore him. You do not argue with a drunk on the street?! – Andreas Reiff Sep 29 '14 at 8:49
1

First off, if its only been going on for a while and nobody takes it seriously, then ignore him and he'll eventually find someone else to antagonize.

Otherwise...

Academic bullying is (sadly) somewhat common in certain fields with considerable popular political influence such as geopolitics, international security, international relations, race relations, climatology, certain forms of economics, etc. Much academic ink is spilt over the color of the bike shed as opposed to the location of it or whether it should even house bikes instead of boats, much less whether or not it should exist. Question anything but the (meaningless) paintjob and risk reputation assassination.

In the case where it is really just a single person who is negatively obsessed with your work you can ignore the person. Invalidating their negative responses is as easy as attacking their credibility in your current area, which appears simple in your case.

In the case where it is not just a single person, or that the detractor is a single person but their attacks resonate with a part of the society aggregated around your field... you have a different problem. In this case you can choose to stand your ground or you can work to mend the situation by changing your stance.

Changing your stance is, of course, totally dishonest, so don't do this unless you are actually playing the "get tenure" game and not the "increase human knowledge" game -- in which case its par for the course in many fields.

If you sincerely feel you have a well supported stance in the field that gained you the ire of this detractor who is negatively influencing the perceptions of those in your current field of study (and if you didn't you wouldn't have gone to the trouble of publishing in the first place, I assume), the only decent defense is a solid offense. This is a bit like a thesis defense, but with a large delay in ping-pong times. If your career is threatened by the problem it is worth it to decompose the argument that got you in trouble, and write an exposition on each point. Use those as point references for those in your current field who are not as well informed about the subject that originally got you into hot water. If you build a solid base of argument you can influence the naysayer, but understand this requires a disproportionate amount of work: calling something into question (especially by a subtle ad hominem attack) is much easier than defending a work that has been "cast into doubt" in the minds of those who haven't taken the time or interest to read it.

Ultimately, my point is that this is a political problem, and sadly this sort of problem has overridden what should be the fundamentals of genuine academics since the beginning of time. If you will win it by argument it will have to be an overwhelming one which consumes you in its defense, at least for a time. The alternatives are to either sacrifice your intellectual integrity or play dirty -- both of which are not helpful to humankind, which sort of goes against the whole point of being a true academic (as opposed to the tenure-chasing variety).

[I now wait for the avalanche of angry comments...]

protected by Alexandros Jul 11 '18 at 18:21

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