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Arguing with Collaborators.

18 May 2012

A collaborator of mine, who was a friend first and a good one, and I have been in a series of knock down, drag out arguments about what sort of statistical information to include (his field), and what sort of papers to cite (in my field) on a paper we’re working on together. It’s been really frustrating, because I have felt disrespected through it. Specifically with regard to the paper citation. The statistical thing is his bailiwick, and while I feel like he’s trying to put in more than is necessary, and more than is anywhere else in the literature on the same topic, I can’t really argue too much, because he has a PhD in biostats and epidemiology, and I don’t.

The citation is really frustrating. He admits that the only reason he wants to cite a particular paper is because it’s a glamour mag article and one of the only ones germane to our topic. I agree, but it’s a total piece of shit that should never have been published as it is. It’s a perfect example of what happens when physicians try to be engineers: i.e., they’re smart people out of their field who generally can pull off just enough good work to do something stupidly dangerous and have it look good.

So I want, if we must cite the paper (and he’s right that if we don’t cite it reviewers will probably wonder why we didn’t.), to point out that it’s a steaming pile of hot garbage. We settled on pointing out that it is deficient in an area that our paper addresses. Which is really insufficient for me, but it’s not worth dying on the hill, I guess. And hopefully, the way we address the same ground as that paper will do the job of pointing out its inadequacy without us having to make it explicit.

But this colleague and I have butted heads pretty constantly over the last 16 years, and I was still in a tuxedo at his wedding. And the wedding march up there on the music page? That was played as his bride walked down the aisle. So it’ll be fine. It’s just frustrating. I’m submitting the paper tonight. But I’m curious, how do other scientists, as well as other people, handle disputes of this nature. Essentially, honest disagreement about how to frame and report results.

How, specifically, do you avoid feeling personally slighted when someone disagrees with your expertise in your field, when it isn’t theirs? Where is the place for feelings at work?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 18 May 2012 12:35

    I would pick my battles carefully. If the paper is insufficient and yours addresses the holes, that sounds good to me. A publication is not the place to blast another. Letters to Nature and Science would be.
    I once had to sever professional ties with a fellow who was a micro-manager and could not make up his mind about anything on a project we worked on. It was not a pretty time. Somehow, in the midst of thinking him the biggest asshole in the institute and having divorced myself from working with him, we still remained collegial. I made him cry that day and have since made amends. Perhaps I was the bigger asshole.

  2. sciencegeeka permalink
    18 May 2012 16:00

    My phd adviser and I had a adversarial relationship. His whole MO as an adviser was to see how much shit he could pull on you, and then when you started pushing back and ignoring his advice, was when he knew that you were ready to graduate. We nicknamed him “jackass” because when I was a rotation student, the student who’s project I was taking over and the adviser had a shouting match in the hall over the project. Student muttered “jackass” under his breath, and Jackass heard him, and it almost came to punches. Even going in, I knew that there was going to be words.

    Jackass and I became to be good friends. We’d blow off lab and go to the movies. We are drinking buddies. I, maybe, know more about him that is healthy for a former student to know. However, we do not work well together (and he really doesn’t work well with anyone). Over the years, I have learned which battles to pick, when to stand my ground, and when to just ignore him so that we can work together. We can even go to a very nice place for lunch these days and no one ends up getting kicked out for yelling or me ending up in tears.

    I think that the good thing to do in this situation is to mention the paper and talk about how it doesn’t address the problem that you are working on, and possibly mention that (perhaps) no paper does, but that one is close however there’s some issues with it. The key is to not sound like you’re trashing them, but to sound authoritative without being cocky.

    • 18 May 2012 16:46

      Wow, Geeka, I can’t imagine having an advisor like that. I wouldn’t have finished. I nearly didn’t anyway.

      • 18 May 2012 21:16

        Me either! I don’t how people put up with crap like that. Or why departments allow them to act that way towards their students.

  3. furtheron permalink
    22 May 2012 07:14

    There was a time when I was very passionate about my work. I have to be honest these days much less so. Why is that? One age, or at least the amount of water under the bridge particularly where you see cycles of change come and go and hear the same old same old management mantras I have become bitter and cynical about much of it. It is frankly often activity for activities sake. “Activity not achievement” – was an old catchphrase of a boss of mine about this nonsense.

    The other thing maybe since I sobered up – in the grand scheme of my life and the world what I do seems so inconsequential. So generally I try to leave my feelings at the door – I regularly fail! Mostly it is me beating myself up at my inability to do what is required but there are times when I cop a resentment over something – this week one thing has riled me. I accept that I’ve not delivered on something, but frankly no one seemed interested 6 months ago so I let the idea wither on the vine… now a load of senior folks are jumping up and down asking where are the results. My resentment is more about the shouting now and I’m sure this is only because a Dean or Vice-Provost has shown an interest in my idea not that they really give two hoots about it themselves.

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