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I'm a PhD student in computer science. I'm currently working with 2 co-authors in revising a paper for resubmission (I'm not the main author). They act very respectful and open to criticism, but they seem to dismiss my concerns without realizing that they are doing it. I'm going to use a fictional example to illustrate the spirit of our conversations:

Me: "I don't think 2+2=5 as you said."

Them: "But we've addressed that concern before. Maybe you should explain yourself better so that we can understand."

Me: "I've already explained it 10 times in different emails and in person. There was even a claim that said 2=1 that I refuted."

Them: "We're not doubting your arguments but we need some time to figure out if that's true. Now let's consider 2+2=5... Oh, yeah, if 2=1 turns out to be true, then..."

At that point, it would make sense to me to ask about how I refuted 2=1. They want it to be true, I'm saying it's false, but they go on with their own trains of thought, assuming it's true. If someone in your team has a piece of information that can be decisive for something you are very interested in knowing, why would you ignore it? I've been told I have to learn how to explain why something is important in order to get my message across, but in this case it is important for everyone (and they know that) and yet they are not willing to make an effort to understand. They have even told me that they have answered my questions when in fact they haven't, and then I have to explain what it is that they don't understand and why, and it's getting frustrating.

1) Am I doing something wrong? How can I tell if it's a lack of skill on my part or laziness on theirs?

2) How can I refuse to collaborate on future works with the same team? I have a feeling that they will ask me to prove that it's not my fault and will keep arguing that this "happens all the time when doing research".

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    Have you considered the possibility that you aren't understanding something correctly and are deriving erroneous conclusions from your mistakes? Sometimes (and in my experience, frequently in areas like Comp. Sci.) the field has certain rarely stated assumptions. These are critically important mathematically, but to experts in this area they are implicitly assumed because it would be "silly" for them to not hold, and they can tend to forget these things with new recruits; which can be irksome to those with a strong mathematics background. – zibadawa timmy May 7 '17 at 7:39
  • I'm sure they would tell me immediately if I were wrong, but they are not even trying to think about the things I point out. I showed there is a logical flaw in a theorem they "believe" in, but they don't care. Besides, the current discussion falls into an area in which none of us is really an expert. They're not even trying to respond to the reviewers' concerns (they think the reviewers are wrong in this area in which we're not savvy while the reviewers seem very knowledgeable and the editor is a recognized expert in the field). – user2059990 May 7 '17 at 16:13
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    Do you have a counterexample? – Captain Emacs May 7 '17 at 21:39
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    @user2059990 Especially based on your comment, the behavior of your co-authors sounds plainly stupid, and a cure for that is yet to be found. I would surely hesitate to invest any more energy into that collaboration. – lighthouse keeper May 8 '17 at 9:05
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    The other thing to consider, before assuming your co-authors are dummies, is that on their side, what they hear is not that you are informing them of something on the order of 2+2=4, (which they actually know) but you are concerned that they are not using pi=3.1415926 instead of pi=3.14159, (which from their viewpoint, are both just approximations but it is not critical to go that many 'digits' in worrying about it). – Carol May 8 '17 at 15:46
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(1) This question could only be answered by reading your drafts and discussion carefully.

(2) If they invite you, politely decline. (If there's more going on here, for example, a debt of gratitude, complex relationships with a third party, funding ramifications, etc., please explain.)

Now I'll pose and answer the question I thought you were leading up to.

Question:

How can I deal with their stubborn refusal to read my comments carefully and give them fair consideration?

Answer:

When you are the low man on the totem pole, it is all too easy to fall into an unproductive communication game with such people. The key is to use an authoritative but not disrespectful tone, write in a neutral tone with no emotions showing, repeat yourself as needed, and time your repetitions carefully. Note about the timing: don't reply right away. You may draft an email response right away, but send it after an interval of time has gone by.

There are two ways to repeat yourself. You can choose whichever one works better for you.

(a) The succinct approach: "I responded to these points in draft number.letter, submitted on date." Or: "Please refer to comments submitted by email on date, time. Notice "comments"(not "my comments"); "submitted" (not "which I submitted"). Depersonalizing the language you use with them helps your messages sound authoritative.)

(b) Copy and paste from the previous draft or email message.

There must be no hint of frustration or sarcasm in your messages. You can be a broken record, as long as you don't show you're aware that you might sound like a broken record. And you must not show you are annoyed, because with people like this, showing annoyance is paradoxically counter-productive.

It might be easier to adopt this tone if you pretend you are the right-hand man of an expert in the field, drafting a response for the Big Researcher. (This is analogous to being a legal clerk to a big name judge.) Write your comments and email messages as though they will be signed by that imaginary senior researcher (which might be you twenty years from now!).

These tips bring no guarantee of success. But at least you'll have minimized the time and energy you've put in.

  • Yes, I could have written that question myself but it didn't occur to me at the moment. I've already been careful with repetitions, timing, emotions (except maybe one or two signs of disbelief at having to repeat myself), sarcasm (a real challenge!), and being succinct but I haven't tried depersonalizing the language. I'll give it a try, and I'll try to take some distance from future projects (probably just as a reviewer) – user2059990 May 8 '17 at 19:43
  • @user2059990 - As perhaps you guessed, I've battled with the impulse to use sarcasm in emails to people who read my previous messages in a very superficial way. Sometimes it takes me three rounds of edits to tone it down. Mine were not in an academic environment. But I think it must be similar regardless of the exact environment. I like to think I'm getting less sarcastic in such situations, based on getting lots of practice. // I hope you'll file an update later. – aparente001 May 9 '17 at 5:10
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    I think sarcasm is very(!) counterproductive in this case. – Volker Siegel Jan 15 '18 at 1:09
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I'll try to extend the answer given by aparente001 by a small but important point: Give constructive critic.

Taking your example, if possible don't say "I think 2+2=5 is false, we should reconsider," but rather take the reconsidering into your own hands: "I have appended a correction of claim X and proven that 2+2=4. By changing our paper slightly in the ways I list below, we can still keep the main result intact."

By doing it like this, you don't force your co-authors to think about why 2+2=5 is wrong and how to correct it. Instead, with the work you did for them, they only need to verify/accept it. Furthermore, they are more likely to look closely at your proof (because they want to find an error to show that 2+2=5 is still true) than they are to rethink their own proof, which they assume to be correct. If they still say "Well, we showed 2+2=5 and thus your proof has to be wrong, so we won't bother to look at it -- find the error yourself," then you should consider pulling out from the project.

Of course this needs quite some effort from your side, so be sure that 2+2=4 is true and that you really want to publish this result (maybe consult an external expert on the field and discuss with him what 2+2 should be).

If you can't come up with a proof of 2+2=4, try to find a question. Say "I tried to apply our theorem of 2+2=5 when I tried to count these apples, but it just doesn't work out. Could you maybe look through this example with me and tell me how to properly apply the theorem?" Once again, they might be more likely to look for an error in your computation of the example than to look for an error in their proof. If they are also too stubborn to help you with that, you should really consider how to not work with them again or how to prevent the wrong result to get published.

And last but not least: Try to talk in their language. Depending on your fields, you might have rather different points of view on certain problems and questions. Maybe they are from number theory and thus 2+2=5 is a special case of some very important theorem, and you are from combinatorics and thus count 2+2=4? In this case, they are more likely to listen to you if you manage to come up with an example from their field or to at least adjust to their language and point of view.

  • Just as you suggested, I want to stop working w/them because they won't bother to look at my arguments, so I'm wasting my effort. I've sent them examples with apples, but they haven't even mentioned them. And let's say their theorem makes a claim about fruits but they only want to prove it for bananas. As for talking in their language, I do, but whenever I ask them to consider some other definition they refuse (or they ask me to justify every tiny little intellectual effort they need to do beforehand, which demands more effort on my part than the effort necessary for them just to do the task) – user2059990 May 8 '17 at 19:28

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