I want out of a toxic relationship with a research team. How do I do it?
January 15, 2013 5:55 PM   Subscribe

Hello fellow academics. I have a situation, that I am sure you're familiar with: I want out of a research team that has been, rather pitifully, working toward a publication for the last 2 years, the end result of which is a majestic, incoherent piece of garbage that has already been rejected by various top conferences and journals. I want out but the problem is that I've done most of the work as second author and I'd rather not see my hard work be attributed to the first author on the manuscript should it somehow get published. What is the best solution in this case?

The story:

Two or so years ago I agreed to work with a research team consisting of a new assistant professor (tenure track) and a few other professors. My role, from what I was lead to believe (although admittedly these roles were never clearly defined as they should have been), was to be the primary methodologist and analyst on a study that had already been presented a few time before in various forms at small conferences and as book chapters. After reading the previous studies and looking over the data myself it was obvious to me that this team was trying to milk this data set for all it was worth, despite the fact that their previous attempts to use it for something theoretically interesting and novel fell flat. It also became apparent to me after a few meetings that the team expected me, for whatever reason, to come up with NEW research questions/hypotheses that could be applied to the data...yes, no literature reviews had ever been conducted until AFTER the data was analyzed. Yeesh. It was a case of "here is some neat data we found, what can we do with it?" I realize I should have said "I'm out" then and there because I really detest that approach to research. Instead, I suggested that the first author conduct a literature review based around the data before I wasted my time analyzing it. That never really happened.

Fast forward after a year of passive aggressive heel-dragging on my part and pressure on the first author's part and I ended up conducting the bulk of the literature review, chose a suitable theoretical framework, formed some decent research questions, and conducted the appropriate analyses. However, because I refused to basically write the entire manuscript by myself and because the first author never REALLY took the time to learn anything about the theoretical framework of the study, the manuscript is now an incoherent mess. The first author decided to add extra theories, extra research questions, extra analyses, and essentially a load of nonsense to the literature review that has absolutely nothing to do with what I originally set out do to (which is more than I should have been asked to do in the first place). We submitted it to a few conferences and top journals against my advice (as none were appropriate fits) only to be rejected. I thought that would be the end of it, but no. First author's tenure review is coming up this year and he/she has been hounding the team (and specifically me) to get this published in a top journal, which I consider to be a pipe dream. Even if it was trimmed and polished it wouldn't be top journal material. I have no idea what the first author has published in the time he/she has been at my university, but I haven't been able to find anything peer-reviewed in the searches I have conducted, which means he/she is probably doing one last, desperate push before his/her tenure review. In fact, the entire time I was made very aware that we should all be helping out said first author get tenure, as if he/she was incapable of doing it himself/herself.

My perception of the ordeal:

Needless to say I've felt fairly used throughout the whole ordeal and I more than likely let myself be used out of some weird sense of pride as a problem solver. The first author has barely done a lick of work on a manuscript that he/she wants to be essentially the shining piece of his/her tenure portfolio. It won't ever be published in a top journal, and I am fairly sick of being nudged to help him/her out when he/she obviously doesn't have the skill to get anything published independently. I feel as though I have done more than my fair share of the work in trying to make this piece of poop into a cupcake. The problem is the work I contributed to the manuscript has SOME merit, even though I would have NEVER gone about a study the way this team did if I were flying solo. I presented my portion as a separate paper at a conference and received nothing but positive feedback, so I know for a fact that it could be published somewhere reputable. I'd rather not have what I consider to be my novel, new concept to be attributed to the first author. Essentially, I refuse to earn tenure for someone else. He/she is obviously incompetent and don't deserve to work at a research university, but unfortunately that is not for me to decide.

So my question is: How do out get out of this sort of toxic relationship without forfeiting my work to someone who doesn't deserve the credit? How does one even go about initiating such a break up?

TLDR: I did the bulk of the work on a manuscript (including the literature review, methods, and analyses) but I am only the second author. The first author has done squat except turn the manuscript into a coherent pile of crap. I feel used in what seems like a push for me to write the first author's way into tenure. I'd love to say "I'm out" but the work I contributed to the manuscript has merit and I don't want that to be attributed to the first author should it ever get published. How can I get out of this arrangement and keep the intellectual rights to my portion of the manuscript for future publications?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (7 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Realistically you can't rescind your contribution to this paper without starting a shitstorm. You could perhaps make a play for first authorship, though. E.g. 'I've exhausted available time to contribute to this project in its current form and must prioritize other projects. However, if you would agree to allowing me to take control of a rewrite and submit with myself as first author, I do see a path to publication and I would be able to justify the further time commitment under those circumstances.'

I've never been great at politics so I don't know if you should listen to me, but sooner or later the colleague will be in a position where a non-first-author publication is better than the nothing that they currently have.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:22 PM on January 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm glad you're prioritizing your own needs and interests, but I think you can go farther. More important than extricating the valuable portion of this research you've done is extricating yourself from a research project that can't get published in good journals or accepted at conferences, and fully committing instead to more productive research.

My impression from what you've written is that the research you've done could only be salvaged even for 2nd rate journals if you were first author and had veto power over the garbanzo. Since you don't, draw a line and communicate it to your research group that you can't spend anymore time on the project. If you're worried about not getting credit for an eventual publication, go ahead and put your fellow researchers on notice that unless someone spends significantly more time on the project than you already have, you would still expect to be 2nd author.

You could attempt to negotiate more control over the project, but I don't think you should do so w/out gaining first authorship, and that sounds to me like more time down the sinkhole. Your capacity to predict your research's rejections suggests you likely have the capacity to be receiving acceptances instead if only you can stop wasting time and effort on this project, including attempting to salvage your contribution.

TL/DR: Assert your right to 2nd authorship and then cut bait.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 6:33 PM on January 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

You haven't said what your role is. Are you a grad student or postdoc while the first author is a professor on the tenure track? Then your rights are approximately zero. The best you can do is to preserve 2nd authorship and stop investing as much time. (Though, you might be limited in doing the latter because the 1st author is your boss.)

As a grad student, postdoc, or research scientist in the group you wouldn't have any rights to exclude your work from a publication or decide on authorship. If it is a gross ethical violation you could bring it to the ombudsperson, but you'd do so at the expense of your longer term career and relationships. Finally you can negotiate with the PI. From your text above this doesn't sound likely to bear fruit, though you could try.
posted by kellybird at 7:21 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are a couple of obvious pieces of missing information here. As kellybird mentioned, your relationship to the first author is relevant: are you at the same or different institutions? Are you yourself tenure-track faculty or somehow equivalent in status? What field is this in? I assume it's one where order of authorship is a Big Deal, since standards on that vary (I'm a mathematician, and I'm usually the final author for the mundane reason of having a last name beginning with "W", because alphabetical order is just how it works for us). How do the other members of the research group relate to this person and/or this specific project?

I'm not sure there are easy ways to disentangle your efforts from this mess: there's no nice way to take your ball and go home on a collaborative project. You could assert substantiality of your contribution and demand authorship credit without continued effort on the project. You could ask not to be credited at all if you think it would reflect badly on you. But lifting your contribution out of a work which your collaborator, at the very least, will assert is a finished whole is a kind of hard move to justify professionally.
posted by jackbishop at 7:34 PM on January 15, 2013

A few things:
--What is your role at the university? It makes a big difference if you're a grad student or fellow prof.
--Where did this data come from? If the first author was responsible for creating a measure, collecting significant data, etc. etc. that is actually a HUGE amount of work. Not to say you haven't also done a lot of work here, but you act as if this data dropped out of the sky sui generis.
--How about dragging your feet some more until after the tenure review, and then renegotiating at that point? Then this individual will sink or swim on merits unrelated to this project.
--Finally, put your energies elsewhere. I get wanting to get credit for the work you've put in! But honestly...life (and particularly academia) isn't always fair. Invest in a solo project or one with a team that you work better with.
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:53 PM on January 15, 2013

If the paper is crap, you might not want to sully your name by having any kind of authorship.
posted by twblalock at 12:04 AM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Two possible options to get out of this without burning your bridges entirely: you say you presented your work as a separate paper at a conference. Is it possible to write your own paper on the methodology only, and publish it as a separate methods paper alongside the current awful manuscript? I don't know how tricky this is in your particular area and you could get into data reuse issues, but if you could expand on your methods a bit, maybe try them on another dataset or simulated data, you might be able to salvage them into a reasonable paper (and if you're first author on that paper, it's clear the methods are your work and nothing to do with the other author).

Or you could make a play for joint first authorship, which is fairly common in my field on multi-author papers - if it's worth your time to do a rewrite and resubmission to a new journal if you got joint authorship you could try for that.

If neither of those are feasible, I think the best thing to do is to let it go - accept you're going to be second author, let the first author take charge of it, and sit back and hope it results in a publication while pressing on with your own research. This sucks, and likely only results in a mid-tier publication at best, but I think that is still a better outcome than trying to pull your contribution entirely, which is more likely to end up with an unpublishable part-manuscript and a bunch of people who hate you for doing it.
posted by penguinliz at 8:24 AM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

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