What should you do with a toxic collaborator?

What's yours? | Photo by Tseen Khoo

What’s yours? | Photo by Tseen Khoo

When I wrote Do you have a toxic collaborator? back in January this year, I promised a follow-up post about what to do if you found you did have one.

This second post has taken me a while to write. Not because I forgot, or thought it wasn’t important. If anything, it has been weighing on my mind all year!

It’s a really hard post to write because I wanted it to contain useful advice – not just platitudes – for those who found themselves in these situations.

Various stories that came my way after the initial post also upped my trepidation. The elements I was talking about, while annoying and with the potential to be project-breakers, were not as vicious or vindictive as some of the narratives people shared with me.

I suddenly felt that whatever I said wouldn’t have helped any of those dire situations, and sometimes there were just awful, small-minded (but powerful) sorts that you just have to avoid or be wary about.

I’ve now come back to this half-drafted post. It is important. It won’t solve all the ills of heinous academic behaviours, but may push back effectively on some.

My initial idea was to address each of the signs of toxic collaboration in turn, and suggest strategies to overcome them. I quickly realised that all the advice I had to give boiled down to a couple of things:

KNOW THY COLLABORATORS

This is a pre-emptive one, I know, so not helpful to those in the throes of a toxic collaboration. BUT if you are thinking about your research plan or potential new connections, then it’s absolutely what you need to do first.

I wrote a post on how to make research friends a while back and still stand by everything I said – read it now as it informs everything I say after this. This bit, in particular, remains the case:

My rule for collaborators is that they have to be people I can face the first thing in the morning at ridiculously early breakfast meetings snatched in the midst of a conference you all planned to attend so you could have a meeting about the other stuff you’re working on together.

One thing I’ll never be comfortable with – and would never advise – is to collaborate on a project with people you’ve never worked with before in any capacity. Universities seem particularly enamoured of gimmicks like ‘speed-dating’ their researchers, or throwing industry and researchers together for a day, and waiting with bated breath for the research innovation and Category 1 applications to burst forth.

Everything that I hear from industry partner advisors and grant developers runs counter to this. Instant connections made for in-the-moment reasons are not a strong foundation for ongoing partnerships and longer-term collaborations.

Some researchers have a stepping-stone strategy to test out collaborations and see if the relationships are productive and collegial. And I find that is the best way to proceed, too.

The power dynamic of collaborations can be a real difficulty when things go wrong. I wrote To prof, or not to prof precisely because I kept hearing about how much exploitation early career researchers (ECRs) must go through to be able to realise their own goals. Work to give yourself choices in these situations, and a crucial key to this is building your professional network as soon – and as actively – as you can.

The second bit of advice, which is easy to say and difficult to enact, is: BE BRAVE. If you have recognised toxic signs in your collaborator(s), things aren’t going to get better by themselves. You can choose to work around toxic behaviours, and this can be OK if it’s a short-term, low-investment kind of project. Get it done, then get out, and avoid that toxic collaborator thereafter.

But what if it’s not? What if it’s something that can blight your record as an early career researcher or research student for years and years to come? That’s when you need to have a serious chat. The chat can put the relationship on rocky ground, kill the project, or maybe – just maybe – it could bring issues into the open and create space for a negotiated solution. Even if the latter doesn’t solve all that you’d like, it could go a long way toward making the collaboration proceed in a feasible and productive way.

Sometimes, a toxic situation can be made better just by airing the grievances of those involved. Those who are toxic in behaviour may be otherwise well-meaning, and could revise their behaviours when they hear how much their team hates that they never respond to phone calls or provide only the skimpiest feedback on drafts. Or it might be a situation where you’ve resented something, haven’t said anything, but presumed the worst – e.g. ‘Why don’t they ever ask for my perspective? They mustn’t respect what I think or the expertise I have to offer’. What you presume may not be the case at all, and it’s good to find out, one way or another.

No-one rushes toward hard conversations or decisions that cause social breakage. That is why many toxic behaviours are allowed to run unchecked – it’s strangely easier to put up with frustration and irritation than confront it.

Sections of these posts may help with those facing potentially difficult meetings with research collaborators whose behaviours are toxic:

While I was angsting at Jonathan O’Donnell about this post the other day – and this happens more often than you’d think – he made a good suggestion for if you felt you had to pull the plug on the project.

Jonathan suggested that people should think about what they’d do if they were moving. That is, if you were moving away from the institution/city/country, and you had to finalise arrangements for (i.e. shut down or withdraw from) the research project, what would you do? How you choose to deal with this situation, and the various members of the research team, will tell you a lot about what you value about the work you’re doing together, and what may be salvaged from the experience.

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer based in Melbourne, Australia. She convenes the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), is often on Twitter (@tseenster) and co-founded the Research Whisperer (theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com) with Jonathan O'Donnell.

7 Responses to What should you do with a toxic collaborator?

  1. Linda says:

    Thank you – some times those toxic relationships are foisted upon you by others, any suggestions about that dilemma much appreciated.

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    • Tseen Khoo says:

      This one’s tricky, Linda, and you’ve probably tried various things out. I would probably try a research ‘pre-nup’, which lays the ground-rules for the collaboration and has escape hatches. For example, if X were to happen, then Y would take place. At its heart would be the Researcher Code of Conduct. Other than that, if it’s someone you know of (or have had to work with before) and you know of various behaviours, putting them on the table right from the start? >> “Last year, the project was significantly delayed because you did not respond to our emails for a full two months. We can’t afford to lose that time so if it happens this time…”

      (I know that if power-plays are in force, all of this gets much more complicated but having clarity of expectations from the start can only be a good thing?)

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  2. That’s good advice, especially the part about being BRAVE. Its just hard when you’re a casual up against a level D from outside your discipline. Hindsight’s 20/20, gotta learn from previous experiences I guess.
    In some cases it might be better to simply say, “No, I don’t think we can work as co-authors on this. But if you have a contract drawn up, I can arrange to do 20 hours paid work on your project for you.” At least that way you get paid for your time, and are not left wondering how your work got stolen.

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    • Tseen Khoo says:

      That’s exactly right, Justine. If the co-authorship cannot work because it is a model of exploitation, then finding a way through it that still allows you to benefit (financially) is better than not.

      In some cases, ensuring that those within the hierarchy know of bad behaviours on the part of some can change things down the track. That is, one complaint may not bring about action but there may be a cumulative effect. Never ideal, but…yes.

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  4. Your post has raised an important and interesting issue. Toxic collaborations, as you call them, can make research work extremely difficult. Such collaborators can later turn out to be toxic co-authors who make it difficult to publish the paper. There have been various instances where co-authors have refused to approve the manuscript before publication, making it difficult for other co-authors to get published. What are your views on this issue?

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    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks for your comment, Sneha, and for posing this difficult question! I would say that having co-authors refuse to give permission is the extreme consequence of a broken-down relationship. My view is that it should be avoided at all costs! Open, honest communication throughout a research relationship (as with any relationship!) can go a long way to pre-empting problems before they become full-blown dramas (such as the instance you describe). I can imagine that the situation would be even more toxic when the power relations in play are uneven and weighted towards those not giving permission…

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