When research collaborations go bad

Stuff happens | Photo by Kim Tairi Released under CC licencse: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0

Stuff happens | Photo by Kim Tairi
Released under CC licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0

One of the toughest things to do gracefully in an academic relationship is to end it, or even question it.

Sometimes, even though you try, there isn’t a ‘good’ way to do it. Perhaps that’s why issues around collaborations – particularly what to do with bad ones – persist so strongly.

A lot of angst can be saved by early discussion about expectations from all team members – who’s doing what, when, and how. As mentioned in this co-authoring post, the division of labour doesn’t have to be equal, it just has to be clear.

On an academic risk management note, make sure you can tick these boxes before embarking on a collaborative project:

  • I’ve had at least one research conversation with the collaborator(s) I will be working with.
  • We’ve talked about division of labour and timelines for the project.
  • I feel comfortable facing my collaborator(s) first thing in the morning to talk about project and publication work. [This is a golden rule with me – ymmv]
  • I’m confident that my collaborator(s) bring relevant and appropriate levels of intellectual value to the project.
  • My collaborators communicate with me in a timely and constructive manner.

If you can tick off that checklist, it should mean few misunderstandings and disappointments.

Still, human nature being what it is, failed collaborative relationships litter the highways of academic research.

From my experiences and observations, I know that not all collaborative relationships can (or want to be) saved. Below are a range of strategies for resolving collaboration angst (that can be trialed depending on the collaborative project in question). I should flag here that I tend to come from the tough-love school of working together.

Have a serious chat about the issues.

This should be something that’s done only after a few clear, preliminary flags about specific issues, such as deadline failures, lack of input, contrary methodology, a social-skill vacuum (actually, I don’t know how you’d talk to someone if they had a social-skill vacuum – suggestions welcome!).

Give people a chance to step up and get back on track, or to recover from a tricky life situation. I may be tough-love, but I’m not heartless.

How hardline you are about the situation will be dependent entirely on the value of the collaboration thus far, and whether your colleagues are also friends or office-mates. Chances are, though, you haven’t initiated the Serious Chat on a whim. It could be that no-one is actually at fault, but just that you have working styles that are incompatible. No matter the complication of the situation, much can be covered by a simple statement such as, “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel I do my best work this way.”

This post is written for those of you who are in (more or less) equal collaborative relationships. That’s not to say you can’t enact change by managing up. For example, if you’re a postdoc on a larger project and the collaborative dynamics are not to your liking, it can’t hurt to bring it up as an issue with the team leader or supervisor (even if the problem is your team leader or supervisor). It may not solve the situation, but it will give you insight into how project and personality problems might be handled on the project.

Think of it as a triage situation – either the work you do in that chat will save the collaboration, or it won’t. Either way, the situation will be resolved.

Deadline escalation, which may be accompanied by external intervention.

If you’re having issues with getting a collaborator to deliver material in a timely fashion (or at all…), try sticking hard and fast to deadlines. The moment one passes, hold the team accountable for work that hasn’t materialised, or sections of papers unwritten. If someone in a research team isn’t seeing their responsibilities through, this will only compound the problem as the project continues.

One way to bring the situation to a head without coming out as the ‘bad guy’ is to have someone else lay down the law.

If it’s a grant application that you feel you’re doing all the work on, leverage your collaborator’s involvement by tagging a senior researcher as a reader who’s waiting for the draft. If your collaborator is really on board, this may spur them to get it done. If it was never a priority for them, or they’re not up to the task, that’s something you’ll also find out.

If it’s a publication, you can use the same mechanism as the grant application (i.e. you have a senior colleague on stand-by who’s going to review it for you), or you could also enlist the aid of the publication’s editor (if the piece is already accepted and you just have to revise and deliver).

When all else fails, cutting yourself loose.

At times, no matter what you try and how many times you re-set deadlines or try to encourage input, the faulty or problematic collaboration limps on.

The key here is to come out of the situation with as little damage as possible. The damage I’m talking about isn’t only the immediacy of fraught co-authoring articles or conference papers, or weeping over lab-benches from the tension and injustices of research team dynamics, there’s also the longer-term damage to your professional reputation and career. Is a clean cut break and some immediate unease with a colleague better than a few more years of feeling exploited, un-mentored, and stalled? Is it better to grit your teeth to see an article through but vow never to work with that person again, or to jump ship and get on with other work where you have more control over its pace and outcomes? What you choose to do will be very much up to your particular situation and personality.

What is good to keep in mind, though, is that persisting in a collaborative relationship purely out of obligation is a situation best avoided.

This post covers how I’d imagine I’d deal with collaboration crises. I should ‘fess up that I haven’t actually had that many. Possibly I am a zealot when it comes to the academic risk management. Have you got good strategies for dealing with collaborations gone sour? What would you add to the ‘academic risk management’ check-list for collaborations?


Postscript: When I first wrote about how to find research friends and forming constructive collaborative relationships, a few responses to the post were of the “but what if it’s not working?!” mold.

There were pleas for advice on how to cut people loose if the collaboration was starting to spring leaks. I wrote a two-part series on how to tell if you have a toxic collaborator and what to do about them.

This post is a succinct version of those two posts and, weirdly enough, I wrote it before I’d even thought of writing that 2-part series. What surprised me when I found this drafted post was:

a) what a complete doofus I was never to have published it at the time, and
b) how consistent it was with my take on the issue, three years later.

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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.

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