Should I let a bad paper with my name on it be presented at an academic conference?
August 26, 2011 5:42 AM   Subscribe

How concerned should I be about a mediocre paper I co-wrote being presented at a conference (by a classmate I despise and distrust)?

Last semester, I had the misfortune of working on a group project with the most awful person I have ever met (and two other individuals). Some of the things that went down include:
- The subject of our research (which was to be presented in paper and presentation form) changed multiple times, partly due to her insistence.
- She disappeared for maybe a month - it ended up being due to illness, but she didn't even send us an email telling us what was up - and then wanted to completely take over again when she returned.
- She did pretty much no research outside of one article we had already been assigned in class and some very tangentially related material she had used for a paper on another subject.
- She made really rude comments about the title I suggested (which we ended up using anyway, since no one had a better suggestion).
- She didn't meet deadlines.
- She claimed to be an excellent copy editor and insisted on having the final review on the paper, but her "final product" had numerous typos and other errors.
- She claimed to be an excellent public speaker and insisted on being the group member to present our research to our class, only to have a near nervous breakdown on presentation day. When we tried to practice the presentation with her, she repeatedly ignored all of our suggestions.
- When she finally presented, she spoke almost exclusively on her own section of the paper which was, as I said, pretty tangential to the subject at hand.
- She posted a nasty comment about the group on Facebook (after having added us all as friends. This is grad school, by the way, not junior high) literally during a conversation we were attempting to have with her about our concerns about the direction of the project.
- She wasted endless amounts of time during group meetings regaling us with stories of her recent and soooo tragic breakup.
- She insisted that we schedule group meetings around her - not even around when she had legitimate conflicts, but around when she might be tired or have other work to do (completely oblivious to the idea that the rest of us might be tired or have other work to do).

This is just to give you an overview of what went down. Anyway, in addition to her presentation being terrible, the paper, in its final form, was, in my opinion, not very good. The sections written by each member don't flow together well, and her section in particular is badly written (but uses lots of academic-sounding jargon). I think it suffers from the fact that we changed topics repeatedly, among other things. Miraculously, we seem to have gotten an A. The professor even gave Horrible Girl good reviews of her rambling, unfocused, jargon-filled but substance-less presentation that left out the actual research done by the rest of the group. So, despite being irked that other people weren't seeing through this girl's bullshit, I figured all's well that ends well and I'll just make sure I never work with her on anything again.

Fast forward to July: Horrible Girl sends an email to the group announcing that she would like to submit the paper to some journals/conferences, so that we can be FAMOUS, and please respond asap with bio info and such (she also offers to just submit it under her name alone if the rest of us aren't interested). I emailed the professor (with whom I had previously had a conversation about the issues I was having with Horrible Girl) with the following questions:
- Seriously, just how bad was the paper (because I think it was pretty bad)?
- Are these conferences/journals Horrible Girl is mentioning worth submitting this to?
- If it's a bad paper, should I be worried about being out there with my name on it?
- Or does "hooray, I've been published!" trump the public shame of having published epic crap.
The professor, busy doing research in Nepal or somewhere else with limited internet access, never responded, and Horrible Girl basically harangued the group into agreeing to let her submit the paper. I had conversations with one of the other group members; she was similarly concerned, but decided she was ok with it, and made a point of saying to Horrible Girl that all of the authors needed to be credited. We also figured that since the paper wasn't good, no one would pick it up anyway, so whatever.

Fast forward to yesterday: the paper has, freakishly, been accepted by a conference, and Horrible Girl will be traveling to DC in a few months to present - she (either really oblivious or fake-oblivious to the fact that we all hate her) suggested that it would be a totally fun girl party if we were all to go together.

So (sorry for the rambling) where does this leave me?
- I have pretty close to zero interest in attending this conference - the idea of spending another moment anywhere near Horrible Girl absolutely terrifies me. However, a) it would be my first time attending an academic conference, which is neat and b) I feel like the paper, despite not being very good, deserves to be protected by someone who isn't an idiot. When HG presented on it in class, she was relying on me and one of the other group members to answer questions, since she didn't actually understand a lot of the material in paper and didn't really draw the same conclusions the rest of the group members did. I am also slightly concerned that she will present the research in an inelegant manner that will offend a lot of the audience. Still, my desire not to waste another second of my life around HG almost certainly outweighs whatever damage control I might be able to do by being present.
- Do I even want my name on this paper, or should I tell her, on second thought, take my name off? I really do think it was pretty bad. Does the fact that it was accepted by this conference mean it's not really as bad as I think? Do the positives of being able to say that I had a paper accepted by a conference outweigh the crappiness of said paper? How embarrassed should I be if a bad paper of mine is floating around out there if there are three other names on it and it was clearly just a stupid school assignment? Will anyone ever read anything but the abstract anyway? I'm just a masters student and probably not planning on going into academia long-term, so does any of this even matter at all?

My ultimate goal here is to protect my professional reputation - it is tempting to accept suggestions simply on how to make HG suffer and expose her for the whiny, childish, bullshit artist intellectual poseur that she is, but I am attempting to cling to some modicum of grown-up behavior here.
posted by naoko to Education (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't see the upside of keeping your name on it. I am not in academia so I may be missing something, but I would rather not be published than publish crap with my name on it that will live forever on the internet. Everything you wrote is either a negative or potential pitfall for the small and unlikely upside that the paper is good and she actually presents it well enough for it to be well received versus just dropping your name and moving on.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:49 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your professor gave it an A and it got accepted to this conference. It may not be as bad as you think. Keep your name on it. If it's not too expensive or time consuming go to the conference. It might be fun or at least a new experience. The girl's personality may be horrible but she sounds like a go-getter and like she 'reads' better to the professor and conference panel than she does to you. Go.
posted by bquarters at 5:52 AM on August 26, 2011 [9 favorites]

Are the conference papers are being circulated online? If not, no worries--this is a free CV item, because no one will remember or care about the second or third author on a bad conference paper presented by some random grad student. And if it is, maybe still no worries--you may be surprised how often people present horrible papers in some disciplines. Either way, go to the conference and find out. But if anyone asks about the paper, rise above this and just say it was an interesting experience.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:01 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Having a name on a paper is more important. No one will remember the presentation (however horrible) a couple of years from now. You WILL want to say that you have a paper on your CV.

You will also want to go to the conference to see what everyone else is doing and talk about your work with the other attendees.

All in all, this sounds like a good deal.

I don't know what kind of thesis you're doing, if you're doing a thesis, but think about writing that up and sending it to a conference, as well.
posted by deanc at 6:06 AM on August 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

A conference presenter who attempts to defend questions about a paper by bad mouthing her absent colleague will come off far worse than the bad-mouthed colleague. But having the colleague sitting in the audience arguing back makes both of you look foolish. I'd say keep your name on the paper (because it truthfully ought to be there), let her present it at the conference and stay away yourself. If you can get a video recording or the presentation then do so.

I suggest you don't attend for the reasons above and because you say you don't plan to be in academia very long. Only if you have never been to an academic conference - or you are really fascinated by the other papers - do I suggest going.
posted by rongorongo at 6:07 AM on August 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I am in academia. It appears to me you are in the same quandary most academics find themselves in. Was the research worthy of the conference? Is the paper good? Is it worthy of publication?

I have requested my name to be removed from papers because I highly disagreed with their experimental approach. I am also getting paid less than those that play the publishing game better. My point - there may be a price you are paying. Only you can determine the pros and cons for your situation.
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 6:41 AM on August 26, 2011

Part 1: it is a good thing for you to have something for your publication list (unless more never comes), so I'd just let it go its course.
Part 2: it would definitely be good for you to show your face at that conference; Conferences are there for networking; most of the papers, except the really brilliant ones, are soon forgotten. Make sure to watch and learn, and to avoid giving off negative vibes; avoid engaging with her drama in front of a public forum (or otherwise, actually). Senior conference goers can spot stuff with uncanny precision; she will be on her own, guaranteed. Don't try to be embarrassed in her stead, or annoyed for her not meeting your personal standards.

This kind of experience is for learning: next time you won't end up co-authoring with people who are unworkable with, because you'll be watching the signs. And: you may always end up with a bunch of conference-going colleagues from your department some of whom you don't like. It is good to train behaving professionally in such situations early on.

And yes, if the deadline isn't already past, you can always also submit a talk of your own. I did that recently, and was accepted for both; it's totally done.
posted by Namlit at 6:49 AM on August 26, 2011

The professor in question is out of contact, but do you not have a mentor of some sort in the field who you can go to with this conundrum? That's what mentors are FOR - to provide guidance in the areas that only experience in the field can suffice. Asking random internet people is great for getting a cross-section opinion but this seems like something that can only be answered by someone in the field who has given the paper the same cursory scan that most of the conference attendees will give it.

Were I you, I'd seek out someone who can fill that role, provide them with a copy of the paper, and say simply "I have an opportunity to have this presented at a conference but it never really turned into what I wanted it to. Am I being overly fussy or would I be making a better career move to have my name left off?"

Don't provide all the dirty backstory you gave us; it's irrelevant for this sort of feedback. You just want to know if someone coming to this blind will have a positive, neutral, or negative reaction. Anything other than negative you should go ahead with it.
posted by phearlez at 7:16 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I see you are learning one of the annoying lessons of the world: sometimes dim and vain people, by very virtue of their dimness and vainess, acheive things you would not , because their inflated view of their own value leads them to take risks you would not. Don't you see how HG is getting ahead by self-promoting, rather than being a perfectionist about quality? Isn't it infuriating?

It's for you to decide whether the self-promotion piece of this is worth compromising your standards of quality. Personally, I sympathize with not wanting a bad piece of research out their with your name on it. But on the other hand, if you're not planning to go into academia or into a field related to the subject of the paper, then what's the harm?

Also, you say the conference is a few months away. Is there any way you can edit the paper so it at least reads well, even if you can't change the substance? At the very least, typos and big disjunctures in style need to go.

If you go to the conference, instead of fixating on HG's horribleness, try to learn some lessons from her about self-promotion. Then, you can start pairing self-promotion with quality work, and you'll be on your way.
posted by yarly at 7:19 AM on August 26, 2011 [30 favorites]

Don't go to the conference, there is no benefit in doing so.

Do insist on having your name on the paper. It's something extra for your CV and that doesn't hurt when you have to find work/justify your existence.

I have been to lots of conferences and seen lots of dull/poor/forgettable papers, I have certainly forgot about most of them, and I certainly don't remember the names of the 2nd/3rd/4th authors who weren't there.

So basically, some benefit to having the paper, no benefit to going to the conference if you don't want to go.

The lesson to be learned here is to take responsbility for your work earlier. One person does not get to ramrod through her personal agenda when there are 3 of you opposing it, unless you let them get away with it. This will apply inside and outside of academia. Have a think about the whole process and how you ended up being dominated by someone who was half arsed about most of the process.
posted by biffa at 8:29 AM on August 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER allow my name to be on a paper that I didn't find to be excellent!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! People may be able to Google your name and find that paper! You say that you have no academia plans, which makes it even MORE important that you take your name off. Do you really want the only paper you've contributed to be something awful? Next time, don't ever trust anybody to edit your final copy if they haven't shown consistent excellence in their own work. I'm sure you've learned a lot about giving up control of an assignment.

The people who are telling you to do it for the resume padding have a very valid point, but I'm just telling you what I would do in your situation. I couldn't live with myself if I saw my name attached to something at the level of what you're describing. Do go to the conference, though.
posted by 200burritos at 10:15 AM on August 26, 2011

Speaking from the field of physics, things may be different elsewhere:

Unless you are first or last author, everyone knows you don't have final cut. You will be given the benefit of doubt when it comes to how the research was presented.

Many conferences have a quite a low level of peer review, so that essentially anything can be published. You usually wouldn't get to do an oral presentation in that case, but you'd present a poster, which in most cases is quickly forgotten.
posted by springload at 10:31 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER allow my name to be on a paper that I didn't find to be excellent!

Unless you're a well-respected member of your academic field with a lengthy publication track record, I don't think you're really in any position to give that kind of advice.

If you did the work, your name goes on the paper. It's a record of the work you did. Obviously, your professor thought it was worthy of an A. Unless there was some kind of fraud or you feel the results are simply wrong, then you should keep your name on the paper.

The attitude of "I would never put my name on a paper that wasn't 100% awesome" is like saying, "I would never acknowledge a class I didn't get an A in." Not everything you do is going to be brilliant, but it might be interesting, and it's worthwhile to tell people about it and see what they think.

I have submitted/written papers where I was the sole author where I thought, "I don't know if this is groundbreaking or awesome work, but it seems to fit into this conference," and it got accepted and the other conference goers thought it was interesting work. The point is both to have a record of your work and to get feedback from other attendees. Any time you come up with something that's interesting and measurable, you should submit the work to a conference. Ok, maybe that's not your professional goal in life, but HG obviously thinks the same way I do, and she has a chance to present the work.

This is a lesson: do work, write a paper, find a fitting conference and submit to it. It might not get accepted, but it might well be!
posted by deanc at 12:44 PM on August 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Your professor gave the paper an A, and it was accepted into the conference.

That's the factual data here.

Think about whether you would view this situation any differently if this woman was a pleasure to work with who you respected. Would you still think this paper was awful? Would you still refuse to go to the conference?

If you can stomach it, don't let her personality issues color a potential opportunity for you. (if only an opportunity to see that confidence and self-promotion can lead to results.)
posted by rainydayfilms at 3:28 PM on August 26, 2011

I would never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER allow my name to be on a paper that I didn't find to be excellent!.

I don't know about this as a face-saving measure. Even if one thinks that his paper is subjectively "excellent" at the time of publication, subsequent discoveries might render the previous research irrelevant or disprove the hypothesis entirely. For example, consider this 2009 article from Nature which discusses the effectiveness of angiogenesis inhibitors in the treatment of solid tumors.

In 1971, a paper by a Harvard researcher named Dr. Judah Folkman was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Folkman posited that angiogenesis inhibitors were the wave of the future for curing cancer. Further research has indicated that the antiangiogenesis strategy isn't as effective as we once thought, and is certainly no magic bullet. The Folkman angiogenesis hypothesis, which was excellent enough for the NEJM, turned out to be less useful than initially thought. One just never knows what will be revealed by further studies.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 4:11 PM on August 26, 2011

Find someone in your field that you respect that can review this paper. There has to be SOMEONE that can read it for you. If their gut feeling is that it's not that great and does you no favors to be associated with it, your name doesn't need to be mentioned.

Don't mention your problems with Ms. Awful.

You may or may not be judging this paper too harshly. Given the A and the acceptance, it may be OK, just not the superior work that you know you can normally do.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:08 PM on August 26, 2011

Thanks for all the advice so far, guys. At the moment I am leaning towards leaving my name on the paper but not attending the conference. few things:

The professor in question is out of contact, but do you not have a mentor of some sort in the field who you can go to with this conundrum? That's what mentors are FOR - to provide guidance in the areas that only experience in the field can suffice.

I have an advisor that I was assigned at the beginning of my program; I have somewhat shifted away from his specialty at this point (I'll be getting a new advisor when I start my thesis some time this semester), but he's extremely knowledgeable and we get along well, and I was planning on checking in with him anyway once I get back to school (early this week, Irene willing), so I can bring it up with him then. Good idea.

I see you are learning one of the annoying lessons of the world: sometimes dim and vain people, by very virtue of their dimness and vainess, acheive things you would not , because their inflated view of their own value leads them to take risks you would not. Don't you see how HG is getting ahead by self-promoting, rather than being a perfectionist about quality?...try to learn some lessons from her about self-promotion.

This is more insightful than you know - thank you.

Next time, don't ever trust anybody to edit your final copy if they haven't shown consistent excellence in their own work.

FWIW, I did manage to get one additional round of copy edits after what was supposed to be the "final" version before it was handed in - don't worry, I'm not that much of a pushover.

Also FWIW: neither the paper nor the conference is really in my specific field. The class the paper was originally for was on gender issues in conflict settings and humanitarian crises, and to be honest it was something of a throwaway class for me - really interesting, but not something I intended to devote most of my energy to that semester. I was more concerned about the classes within my human rights concentration and my research papers for those two classes (which were on the right to health and immigrants' rights). The paper and conference involve women in the U.S. military - not an area where I am planning on working in the future or where I feel a huge need to make a name for myself or network much.
posted by naoko at 7:32 PM on August 26, 2011

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