Friday, June 4, 2010

Splitsville and Intellectual Offspring

I have a collaboration with a relatively well-known midcareer faculty (midcareer meaning here 10-20 years since getting first TT job); I am tenured but still in what can be considered early career (0-10 years since starting first TT). We shall call My Collaborator MC, for obvious reasons (I know, it's totally uninspired; I was toying with Collaborator in Question, CiQ for short, but I think the pun may be in poor taste). The collaboration is relatively recent (the last 2+ years), and we have complementary, non-overlapping expertise. We have advised one student jointly, and developed a New Technique, where the New Technique should be thought of as a set of necessary physical insights, processes, and new developed tools. In particular, an important part of New Technique is Cool New Tool. Both our expertises were instrumental in the development of New Technique/Cool New Tool.*

This all sounds like a match made in heaven, right? Well, the problem is what next.
During the course of the collaboration, I have found it very hard to work with MC, as MC is very busy and important, and has different priorities in career right now. I am very focused on research and publishing (I guess I never relaxed after tenure track) and my work style is such that I am in my projects up to my elbows, I interact with my group members quite frequently and on the level of technical details. So the collaboration has been very frustrating for me (maybe for MC too, but he/she doesn't let on): I have been facing long turnaround times to send something to print because of MC's busy schedule, which is made more difficult by the fact that MC really insists on having everything written and done 'just so'. In the end, I have had to simply accept MC's writing style and tempo of work in order to get things out, but have found the whole process extremely stifling. Also, MC and I have completely different views on how students should be advised, when papers are ready to be presented at conferences, how frequently a student gets to travel to present the work... Overall, I have not been happy with the collaboration (although it has been productive) and don't foresee it continuing into the future, past the graduation of the joint student and the completion of the present grant.

So the question is -- what next? I have told MC that he/she can do whatever he/she wants with New Technique/Cool New Tool, it's OK by me if MC writes proposals and papers beyond our current project without me and it's OK to use the full New Technique and employ the Cool New Tool. However, in our conversations it became clear that MC expects to be part of future proposals of mine where New Technique and/or Cool New Tool is used. This irks me, because I have a number of ideas for proposals that I can write on my own and that somewhat utilize New Technique in a peripheral way; I do not want to have to run every idea of mine by MC. I would be happy to have MC as a collaborator if the collaboration hadn't been quite so uncomfortable; I simply want to sever the ties, but I think I have the right to enjoy some benefits of New Technique and to use the Cool New Tool. In all fairness, MC did indicate that he/she wants me on his/her future grants, but I just want out.

So when you are divorcing your collaborator, how do you divide the custody of your joint work, i.e., your intellectual offspring?

Here are some thinking points:

- Do you think MC has the right to expect to be a co-PI or consultant on my grants just because we developed New Technique? And if so, for how long is this acceptable? Is there a point in time (after a certain number of months or years, or a certain number of papers) where I can guilt-freely just stop thinking about MC?

- Do I have, at all, the right to use New Technique or utilize Cool New Tool without participation of MC? Is there a degree to which I have this right, and how do you measure it? We did develop New Technique and build Cool New Tool together and I told MC he/she can use all for whatever he/she wants later on (I expect no type of lingering commitment because of my participation in the original project, and was expecting the same on MC's side, but instead I have this request for continued engagement, which I want to avoid). I could continue to develop New Technique/Cool New Tool for the purposes of the projects I envision (within my area of expertise), and I would not be in direct competition with MC.

- A clean way would be for me to continue on my own and never use New Technique or employ Cool New Tool, but is that fair to me? I would say in terms of expertise we contributed 50-50, but timewise I probably put in more as I was more involved in the technical details, especially regading the actual development of Cool New Tool. This is the biggest issue here; it took 2 years to develop Cool New Tool in particular and I suppose I could do it all over again on my own, but it feels like such a waste of time; I feel I should not have to do it all over again from scratch and should be able to enjoy the fruits of my work.

- Finally, would your answers differ in the cases of MC being a man/woman?

MC is a nice and collegial person and I'd like to do this in a non-confrontational way if possible. MC is also known to hold his/her cards close, so I don't expect him/her to consult me on his/her plans. I have received suggestions to just go about my business with proposals as though I have full custody of New Technique/Cool New Tool and claim naiveté if MC objects; that may be sage advice, but strikes me as perhaps unnecessarily sneaky. Hence this post!

Thoughts?

---------------
N.B. Prodigal academic wrote a nice related new post which I encourage you to check out. I also wrote about collaborations a bit earlier, and will continue to do so periodically, as I find them to be a fascinating mix of science, psychology, and politics.

* After Melissa's comment, I included explicit references to Cool New Tool, to make it clear that there is something tangible at stake that I would like to be able to use and that would take a long time to build again from scratch.

16 comments:

melissa's said...

My attitude is, to keep your offspring metaphor, once it's published it has "left the nest". It's an independent little technique, ready to face the world with its own hopes and dreams. Seriously, though, anybody with the technical skills could reference your paper in a grant proposal and say "This recently published technique would give insight into my system blah blah blah and I have the expertise to pull it off." Whether or not that last part is true, published work is fair game for anyone to build off from.

Now of course you and your collaborator, as individuals, have the second-best claims to the expertise that makes using New Technique in a proposal sound feasible (the best claim is to do it together, naturally). But once it's published, your collaborator has no right to tell you not to do New Technique, any more than he/she can tell anyone out there not to do the technique.

No need to be sneaky. Tell him/her how pleased you are that New Technique has enabled new lines of investigations and new grant ideas for him/her, and that you will be using it similarly in the future.

Maybe you could do another post sometime on the related phenomenon of intellectual ownership -- how some people think they have exclusive right to a technique, a model system, even a whole sub-field, just because they published there first...

Meadow said...

You are ahead of me on the academic totem pole, so for what it is worth I'll pitch in with some comments. Once your work (and tool) is published you can individually build on it. No need to ask anyone permission. This could be a control issue -- ie this is how your co-PI controls you. But maybe I'm generalizing from my situation (below).Hard to say male versus female, but this sounds like a passive-agressive male since women tend to be more collaborative and inclusive in nature -- going by stereotypes ;)

I'm PI on a grant with a co-PI who delays, procrastinates, ignores email and generally does what he wants when he wants. We do good work together since we have a lot in common, but I don't like collaborating with him as it makes everything take longer for me. But what to do now.

a) I'm gradually separating what we do so my work doesn't depend on anything he does.

b) I'm giving him a healthy dose of the cold shoulder. Two can play the game. But I'm careful to be friendly and civil.

Any more suggestions??

Requin said...

Thanks for posting about this... I also have a frustrating collaborator who is several stages ahead of me career-wise, and thus has different priorities for when papers get done and how quickly anything gets turned around. We also have very different work styles, and my collaborator is very sensitive and thin-skinned so I am always walking on eggshells when trying to move projects along. Unfortunately, I can't just walk away from the collaboration at this point but I so look forward to the day when I can! Well, except for the one project that we developed in common, and here I think my solution will be to just do what I want in future versions and have collaborator's name on it. I will give the collaborator time to be involved, and I fully expect that my collaborator will not get around to doing anything, but then I am off the hook and don't have to deal with the complicated and stressful situations that arise when he/she is involved. What I don't want to do is officially sever any ties - that would be both professionally and personally awkward.

GMP said...

Thanks for the comments!

Maybe you could do another post sometime on the related phenomenon of intellectual ownership -- how some people think they have exclusive right to a technique, a model system, even a whole sub-field, just because they published there first...

Melissa, that's a great idea for a future post, thank you! When I read this paragraph, a guy came to mind for whom a collaborator of mine says "He makes a fence around the whole world and says "Mine!""

We do good work together since we have a lot in common, but I don't like collaborating with him as it makes everything take longer for me. But what to do now.

a) I'm gradually separating what we do so my work doesn't depend on anything he does.

b) I'm giving him a healthy dose of the cold shoulder. Two can play the game. But I'm careful to be friendly and civil.

Any more suggestions??


Meadow, your tactics sounds very savvy. If I am not mistaken, you are on tenure track now? Then by all means a cold shoulder and adiabatic-break-up is the way to go. You don't want to antagonize anyone you don't have to right now. And in my experience, when the time comes for the department to compile a list of letter writers for you, they do ask your collaborators. So being on good terms at least until tenure is a very good idea. I think you are doing everything right. No grand gestures, just slow and friendly withdrawal...

Requin, your situation sounds very similar to mine except for
I will give the collaborator time to be involved, and I fully expect that my collaborator will not get around to doing anything, but then I am off the hook and don't have to deal with the complicated and stressful situations that arise when he/she is involved.

I wish my collaborator was entirely passive; he/she is unavailable and passive, yet also controlling when publicaiton time comes...

What I don't want to do is officially sever any ties - that would be both professionally and personally awkward.

I think it's generally a good idea not to sever ties (especially if you are at the same institution and/or you don't have tenure). Unless the person has been terrible or abusive, and it doesn't sound like he/she has been, you should be able to part ways wihout animosity. A few years back I had a fallout with a collaborator, but we completed the project and kind of drifted apart; but now we are back working together. We could have been at each other's throuats but didn't and I think it's good we didn't. Breaking up a collaboration is a case where too much talk is not good, especially when you are in a vulnerable positions, such as on tenure track...

Neo said...

Don't complicate beyond the actual problem.
You are an academic.
Honest, empathetic, and open discussion will solve the issue.



Neo

Venkat said...

To knock off the easy question first:
How can any answer here possibly depend on MC being a man or woman?
Even if one thinks different genders are different in some regard etc, MC is a specific person, not the average of a gender group.

My guess is that papers/proposals dealing with technique development/refinement and initial application of technique can have co-authorship. After that, its fair game for anyone (even an outsider)to run with it solo.

prodigal academic said...

Hmmm,GMP--your dilemma is a tricky one. I thnk previous commenters who said that MC has no moral or realistic claim on ALL FUTURE work with New Technique/Cool New Tool are absolutely correct. If you didn't have to worry about your future (non-collaborative) relationship with MC, just go ahead and use New Technique at will, and ignore MC.

If you want to preserve the relationship, and MC has made it clear that he/she is unrealistic about future directions and new proposals, could you approach the breakup in a different way? How likely is it that MC will want to be on the proposal in name only? Maybe have a conversation about how you want to use New Technique in this interesting new direction (that is not in MC's area of interest or expertise), you are preparing a proposal, and you would like to discuss what MC's contribution would be so you can plan the budget. After the first project, just go ahead and continue on your separate ways. You can do the same thing if MC tries to include you on future proposals as well.

The main problem is if MC insists on being included, even if he/she will make no contribution. That is stickier, and kind of depends on your field norms. In my field, it is unusual to have a co-PI that contributes nothing, but I have heard that in other fields this is more common.

Anonymous said...

A difficult problem. I'll offer some thoughts from a different perspective; but first off agree with the other commenters that, in terms of professional ethics, you are free to do what you like with CNT once it has been published.

The different perspective is that I can see something of myself in MC: a senior person, possibly overworked and certainly overcommitted, and a perfectionist (these attributes are not unconnected); I know I have had exasperated collaborators in my time. One other attribute that might matter is how controlling MC is, in general: does he need to
manage everything, or just feel that what goes out with his name on it, has to meet his own standards? If the latter, it is possible that MC may appreciate and feel a bit guilty about the situation, though not enough to change, in
which case he might welcome the separation as a chance to not have this to deal with. (A more controlling type probably would not).

But there is another aspect as well: if you cease to collaborate, but continue to pursue the same funding sources, you become, to some degree, competitors: something MC might well not welcome, given (I am assuming) his many obligations and your obvious focus.

I'm inclined to agree with the "have an honest talk" suggestion--but then again, there are people I know with whom this would be a bad idea. And of course this suggestion (and the above) is all free advice, and probably worth its price.

GMP said...

Neo said: Don't complicate beyond the actual problem. You are an academic.
Honest, empathetic, and open discussion will solve the issue.


Neo, you are very right. The problem is that we had the talk already and I indicated I wanted to move forward on my own. MC also made it clear that he/she feels he/she should be part of future proposals. It was something like "I want to go on my own, and I am happy if you do too. Use Cool New Tool as you wish." MC goes "But it will be much better if I am a collaborator on your proposals and you are on mine." What does one say here without engaging in an argument? There are a number of snarky things I could have said, such as "Define better" or "Better for whom?" but I decided not to push it. So maybe you are right and another talk may be in order. But I think it's clear we want different things/have diverging interests and I feel that, as my other collaborator said, "MC is leaning over you".

Venkat chimed in: How can any answer here possibly depend on MC being a man or woman?

I was more hinting to whether, upon my description of MC, people were more likely to envision this to be a man or a woman.

Venkat: Even if one thinks different genders are different in some regard etc, MC is a specific person, not the average of a gender group.

Touché! :)

Anon at 11:26 AM said: ... senior person, possibly overworked and certainly overcommitted, and a perfectionist (these attributes are not unconnected)

:) Aaah, that's MC to a tee!

Anon: ...in general: does he need to manage everything, or just feel that what goes out with his name on it, has to meet his own standards

I'd say the latter.

Prodigal academic said: Maybe have a conversation about how you want to use New Technique in this interesting new direction (that is not in MC's area of interest or expertise), you are preparing a proposal, and you would like to discuss what MC's contribution would be so you can plan the budget.

Anon said: But there is another aspect as well: if you cease to collaborate, but continue to pursue the same funding sources, you become, to some degree, competitors: something MC might well not welcome, given (I am assuming) his many obligations and your obvious focus.

Prodigal & Anon, this issue you both raise is very important. I actually already submitted two proposals on my own where Cool New Tool was used marginally and on the tail ends of the project, and I have a number of new ideas for related follow-on work where Cool New Tool would be more important and we could open up some really cool vistas. I actually may have made a mistake of mentioning some of these ideas to MC in passing (my big darn mouth), who is now very interested in reading the submitted proposals (I am still avoiding sharing them, citing extreme forgetfulness, and hoping MC will take a hint); while these new developments would be way out of MC's field, it looks MC wants to get into the field, while I really don't need him/her to do the work. So I think we may have a case of 'leaning over' as one of my collaborators has said.

Anon at 11:26, I don't know if you have your own blog, but if you don't and if you can spare the time, I would love it if you could write a guest post on how your view of interactions between junior and senior faculty may have changed over the years, as you moved between ranks? Or how your view of department and university politics changed (or still changes) over the years? (If you have a blog, I would really look fwd to posts on these topics.)

Thanks for the comments everyone, great advice!

Anonymous said...

GMP,

No, I don't have a blog. I also suspect that my experience is too idiosyncratic to be useful, for two reasons. The lesser one is that the field I am in, at least where I am, does not have the "lab culture" in which each faculty member has a lab with lots of grad students and postdocs: in reading, e.g., your diversity post and the reactions to it, I have the feeling of viewing an unfamiliar world. The more important reason is that I've had the luck (good, I think) to have worked at the same place as grad student, postdoc, researcher, and faculty, so my views are pretty parochial, and are more those of someone who has, so to speak, moved up in a family business.

FWIW, I can say that what you've written in earlier posts all seems right to me; in particular about how collaborations are viewed by reviewers. What is important is to have something that is good, and that you can credibly point to as your idea that you developed; given this evidence of your ability to do your own science, the rest of the file can be collaborations with (in my opinion) no ill effects. But of course different places, and different departments, will have different views: your mileage may vary.

Good luck with MC.

Neo said...

See Ma'am,
I'm not aware of intricacies of grants and owenership of intellectual works in academic world, so I'm not going to give any specific advice on that.
But what I can tell you is this-

At somepoint of time, no matter what relationship you're in, business, academic, or an intimate, you'll have a situation to say "NO" and brace for consequences. You can't avoid it altogether. The problem I see is not that you are not sure what "MC" expects, but you are not sure what YOU want. First understand what exactly YOU want.

Having said that, it's not a blank cheque. (S)he's been your collaborator. And you can't be rude with them. So I can suggest three alternatives-

1. Have courage to say NO, with exact reason, and be ready to face consequences. But be sure to make it professional.

2. Or Make them understand the problem you faced when you did the project together, and if they want to collaborate/ expect something more, they will have to address your concerns. Don't just go by mere assurances, ask for exact commitments and make it clear that you would rather stop the project than suffer the "bad collaboration".

3. Or take this incident as a lesson. Review yourself as a person, as professional and ask yourself why did you end-up in such a situation in the first place. You see ma'am, people don't give more respect to us than what value we give ourselves. You set the tone as how other people will treat you.
So make a pledge that You'll never again let such things happen in your professional life, and from next time dissucss fine details before you choose someone as partner, and make sure that they share similar values, and give respect to your concerns (and you have respect for them, as well :) ). And about "Cool New Device", forget it. Abondon all projects related to that. It'll be a reminder and a lesson. Work on a completely new idea, with a pledge become a matured professional, with no burden of the current dilemma.

Forgive typos, if any.


Neo

GMP said...

Thank you, Neo.

Have courage to say NO, with exact reason, and be ready to face consequences. But be sure to make it professional.

See, Neo, in academia, chances are you spend 30 years around your colleagues in the department, because job mobility is not high. So any action needs to take into account that you have to live with it daily for a long time. Grand gestures such as proclaiming you never want to work with them and open conflicts can sometimes not be avoided, but people try really hard not to come into open confrontations if it can be avoided because once some harsh things have been said it's hard to go back. So I suppose academics can be quite passive-aggressive, but it's usually for a good reason.

MC's behavior at this point does not warrant a full-blown conflict.

So make a pledge that You'll never again let such things happen in your professional life, and from next time dissucss fine details before you choose someone as partner, and make sure that they share similar values, and give respect to your concerns (and you have respect for them, as well :)

This is sage advice for life, Neo, especially choosing a romantic partner. With collaborators, one cannot know a priori, as people's intetests change. Most academics are not bad or evil or unethical, but sometimes their interests coincide with yours and sometimes they don't. You may not be able to avoid working with some people because you need each-other's expertise. So you try to adapt. And you seek wisdom from the blogosphere! :)

Neo said...

I wonder how people solved issues in pre-blog era.





Neo

Neo said...

I concur. Tone wasn't right. So I have no shame in accepting that part.
And I have great respect for academic world, for they are the ones that guide rest of humanity.

Peace.



Neo

oldfeminist said...

I know this is way late, but I just found your blog.

Is it possible to work with MC on one project and have another where you're in charge? Then you won't feel the frustration so much when MC is lagging, and MC may even feel a little pressure to "keep up" with what you're doing on your own.

I'm also thinking that the advice to say "NO" might not be to say "I never want to work with you again," instead it's "I'm inclined not to, because ." That puts the ball in MC's court. If your participation is valuable to MC then maybe MC will offer to change something to make it more rewarding for you.

Anyway, I'm enjoying reading your blog and hope you continue.

I was initially brought in by a third- or fourth-hand reference to the post that got all that attention, but I will now be following you, as an academic career is something I once thought I wanted but never managed to get into, partly because of a bad advisor. You bring it to life for those of us who are not "inside."

GMP said...

Thanks, oldfeminist. It's never too late to comment!

I am happy you are enjoying the posts and hope you will continue to comment.