Bad coauthors: how to avoid them and what to do when you have one

Note from Jeremy : this is a guest post by Abe Miller-Rushing and Richard B. Primack. Richard was Abe’s PhD advisor, and they continue to collaborate on many projects.

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BadCo-Authors

In this staged photo, Richard Primack and his research team exhibit disagreement and conflict.  In practice, weekly lab meetings and social activities (lunches, pot-luck dinners, walks, etc.) create opportunities for communication and shared goals.

We have written 45 articles together over the past 15 years. We know each other well and trust each other a lot.

But we (and probably most of you) have had experiences working and coauthoring papers with people we don’t know well—sometimes people we don’t know at all before a project begins. Most of the time the result is great! There are a lot of awesome scientists out there. And even when coauthors don’t click, it usually works out just fine—not everyone is going to be best friends, but most ecologists can get along well.

Occasionally, however, we have worked with bad coauthors: people who make doing research and writing papers way more complicated, difficult, and unpleasant than it needs to be. We have witnessed others work with bad coauthors, too. As editor-in-chief of a journal, one of us (Richard) has had to step in and mediate failed coauthor relationships too many times.

What makes a “bad coauthor?”

Lots of things can contribute: personality conflicts, poor work habits, poor communication, and lack of trustworthiness are a few of the biggies.

Many of the worst cases of bad coauthors we’ve observed involve unbalanced power dynamics, like those between grad students, postdocs, or technicians and their supervisors, or between early-career faculty and senior professors. Professors and senior scientists sometimes manipulate authorships to their advantage, take credit for their student’s work, unfairly control funding, or block students from submitting papers. One of us (Abe) experienced the latter in a situation with a senior scientist (not his advisor). The paper remains unpublished—incredibly frustrating, but luckily it didn’t hurt his career. Other students, postdocs and technicians are not so lucky; blocked publications or lost credit for work can strongly influence early career trajectories.

Personality conflicts are another common cause of breakdowns among coauthors. We like to think of ourselves as nice people, but no one gets along with everyone. Communication among coauthors can break down, sometimes due to mistrust, ego, or envy, making it tough to write a coherent paper. Sometimes one bad co-author creates such a toxic atmosphere that other team members jump ship (Abe left a project for this reason). If a bad co-author wants to, they can really screw things up for the rest of the team by withholding their part of the project or a key data set, refusing to give permission for a paper to be submitted for publication, or simply refusing to communicate at all.

In some cases, a coauthor, especially someone working for the government, might block a paper because its conclusions or recommendations are inconsistent with their institutional policies. This is a bit sensitive for us now that one of us (Abe) works for a federal agency; although scientific integrity policies have helped to reduce these problems in recent years.

Other times, bad coauthors might be late with their work, unresponsive to communications, sloppy with their data analysis or writing, or just belligerent. For example, one of us (Richard) has had coauthors yell at him and his students for no good reason, or for mistaken reasons.

Unfortunately, bad coauthors can make what should be an exciting, enjoyable, and productive research experience into a tense personal conflict.

How can you prevent coauthor conflict?

The best predictor of good collaborations is trust—research tells us so. So when possible, work with people you trust!

In addition, start your collaboration by setting up agreements and structures that support open, honest, and respectful communication throughout your project. There are some great examples of collaboration agreements, authorship guidelines, and other helpful tools out there (see some of the citations at the end of this post). Find ones you like and use them. They may seem unnecessary, and might lead to some awkward conversations, but a little work clarifying roles, expectations, and good practices at the beginning of projects can save a lot of grief later. You can also reference collaborator agreements in the management plans for grant proposals—savvy reviewers will trust the team more.

Recently, one of us (Richard) was shocked to realize that a coauthor had plagiarized a section of a draft of a group paper; he had copied it verbatim from another published paper, but assumed this was acceptable because he cited the source. Fortunately, the members had established good communications early in the project through face-to-face meetings and group emails, so they defused and remedied the situation through candid and respectful discussions via email and Skype.

Want to work in super collaborations?

Parker and Kingori (2016) identified some best practices for global health research collaborations. Their key points are appropriate for ecology, evolution, and conservation, too. Here is a partial, somewhat paraphrased list of characteristics of successful collaborations:

  • Interesting science (everyone loves good science!)
  • Effective leadership, often involving a leader able to share credit with others
  • Commitment to good scientific practice
  • Respect for the needs and interests of all partners
  • Regular opportunities for discussion and disagreement
  • Trust and confidence in each other
  • Fairness in recognizing individual contributions

In many cases, situations involving “bad” coauthors result from miscommunication and unclear expectations for what the above characteristics should look like in practice. For instance, teams can usually agree to have respect for one another’s needs and interests. But what happens if a personal or professional issue gets in the way of one co-author meeting an agreed upon deadline? Respecting the needs of that coauthor may require flexibility on behalf of the others; however, delaying a deadline for one coauthor may interfere with the needs and interests of others on the team.

What do you do when you find yourself working with a bad coauthor?

It stinks to work with bad coauthors. No two ways about it. There is no one best solution. A good first step is to try talking honestly, respectfully, and directly with the problem co-author about the issue. If you have set up clear collaborative agreements, revisiting them can make conflicts easier to settle. The goal of your conversation might be to gently inform your coauthor that the collaboration is strained (even the most intelligent scientists often struggle to read each other’s minds!), identify which of your goals may be at odds, and to identify possible solutions together. It’s not easy, but it’s great when it works—better than most of the alternatives.

If talking directly to the co-author doesn’t work, you might try asking someone in a position of authority to mediate—a department head, supervisor, or someone in a similar position, or a respected, disinterested third party. Or you could ask a neutral member of the team to act as a go-between for people that are having trouble communicating.

Sometimes the best option is just to suck it up and work with the bad coauthor to publish a given paper, but not carry out any further work together. In a worst-case situation, you may have to abandon a project.

Make sure you are a good coauthor.

If you find yourself constantly working with bad coauthors, check to make sure the common denominator isn’t you! We improve as coauthors by reflecting on our own performances and asking for feedback from our collaborators.

Good coauthors tend to be magnets for other good coauthors, and can help keep otherwise bad coauthors on their best behavior. We’re not perfect ourselves, but we’re always trying to improve. And at least we are good co-authors with each other.

Selected References and Readings

Albert, T., and E. Wager. 2003. How to handle authorship disputes: a guide for new researchers. In: The COPE Report 2003. pp. 32-34. Committee on Publication Ethics.

Bennett, L.M., and H. Gadlin. 2012. Collaboration and team science: from theory to practice. Journal of Investigative Medicine 60: 768-775.

Bennett, L.M., H. Gladin, and S. Levine-Finley. 2010. Collaboration and team science: a field guide. National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.

Brand, A., L. Allen, M. Altman, M. Hlava, and J. Scott. 2015. Beyond authorship: attribution, contribution, collaboration, and credit. Learned Publishing 28: 151-155.

COPE Council. 2014. What constitutes authorship? COPE discussion document. Committee on Publication Ethics.

Dance, A. 2012. Authorship: who’s on first? Nature 489: 591-593.

Parker, M, and P. Kingori. 2016. Good and bad research collaborations: researchers’ views on science and ethics in global health research. PLoS ONE 11: e0163579. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0163579

Primack, R., J. A. Cigliano, and E.C.M. Parsons 2014. Coauthors gone bad; how to avoid publishing conflict and a proposed agreement for co-author teams. Biological Conservation 176: 277-280.

Weltzin J.F., R.T. Belote, L.T. Williams, J.K. Keller, and E.C. Engel. 2006. Authorship in ecology: attribution, accountability, and responsibility. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4: 435-441.

(Jeremy adds: see also my post on what co-authors should do if they disagree on what their paper should say, and my poll of reader opinions on this issue.)

21 thoughts on “Bad coauthors: how to avoid them and what to do when you have one

  1. “Lots of things can contribute: personality conflicts, poor work habits, poor communication, and lack of trustworthiness are a few of the biggies.”

    B*I*N*G*O. You nailed it with that comment. I’d have to say from my own experiences that poor work habits and poor communication top off any list along these lines. It is those two things that create a lack of trust downstream, as it were. There are always personality conflicts with anyone we come to know. Reasonable adults find a way around these conflicts. However, if you are a student or someone with less-than-PI status on a project, then you best “get it in writing” before things turn south.

    Get it in writing? Yes, get it in frigin writing. Because at the end of the day, or at the end of the conflict it does not matter who was “right” and who was “wrong”. All that matters is who controls access to data, publishing and copyrights, period. That’s it. Forget the rest and protect yourself. It’s akin to taking along a condom on date night. Chances are you won’t need it on that first date, but hey, there ain’t no atheists in fox holes, right?

    I’ve had two experiences where underlings had to take cover from a wayward PI. In the first instance the PI was a very bright and charming fellow, but he had far too many responsibilities. He was overloaded and stressed out- a condition common before tenure is granted. His obsessive fear and anxiety concerning potential failure caused him to hire and fire people like, well, Donald Trump. I was affiliated with him as a research faculty member without tenure. Thankfully I immediately recognized the issues in this lab and I made damned certain that my ideas, my funding and my work were just that- mine. When this bozo was on a vacation in Spain for 6 weeks, he phoned me one day and asked me to leave… I answered, “You got it, dude!” I threw my lab notebooks and data disks into my briefcase, walked away and never looked back. Good riddance, end of story.

    In the second instance a co-PI I worked with was a classic example of a person Missing In Action. She showed up to work maybe 4 to 8 hours per week. She never accomplished any of the duties that were her responsibility and when she attempted to do something, she screwed it up- constantly. It was, simply enough, a relief that she only came to work for 4 to 8 hours per week. I also saw the writing on the wall with this person’s deficiencies very early on in the relationship. And so I made damned certain that signed agreements were in place protecting my work, my data and my copyrights. But even that did not prevent this person from being a total pain in the butt concerning a variety of issues. Regardless of the all the hullabaloo, I again walked away with my data (years worth of data) along with publishing and copyrights.

    It is of the utmost importance that graduate students and other less-than-PI people in research capacities to know that yes, you can protect yourself. You can and should require signed agreements concerning any and all data, publishing and copyrights. Very few people request these agreements and because of that, very few are protected. I always tell people that a research collaboration is not a marriage, it is a professional relationship. It’s time for everyone to assert their professional selves in these relationships, period.

    • Elliot, Thanks for these comments. In our earlier article published in Biological Conservation we give an example of agreement among collaborators. You and others might want to use such an agreement when forming a new collaboration among people who do not know each other well. Of course, if people trust each other and are involved in long-term work arrangements, then no such agreement is needed. Richard
      Here is the reference:
      Primack, R., J. A. Cigliano, and E.C.M. Parsons 2014. Coauthors gone bad; how to avoid publishing conflict and a proposed agreement for co-author teams. Biological Conservation 176: 277-280.

      • Thanks, Richard, that is a great resource! I would say though that an ounce of caution is worth a pound of cure. Signed agreements are good for new relationships, but I’d say perhaps even more important for protecting those long-standing ones too.

      • I have only once had a “bad” co-author, in the sense that the relationship was unfriendly or strained. I have, however, had poor co-authoring experiences; these tend to have their roots in an unformed partnership. That is, the work relationship that led up to the writing was not well-formed. As a result of challenging experineces, I have come to the view that a good working partnership is itself an important research ‘product’ — and thus making sure to allocate the time to estabish effective communication, a common theoretical framework (adequate to the work at hand), and some conversation about what each partner wants/needs to get out of the work.

  2. I imagine that surrounding yourself with bad coauthors breeds bad coauthor behaviour. Imagine constantly having to watch your back. Then when you come in contact with a good co-author who is completely open, you look paranoid and untrustworthy, even if you have good intentions.

    • Goodness, that sounds almost as terrible as Nurse Ratched telling us we’re fine and to go back to class… I can’t imagine having more than one bad co-author at a time. Are there that many of them walking around? Almost all of the bad co-authors I’ve known were also flaming narcissists. So I am thinking that most often, we only encounter one bad co-author at a time because of the difficulties associated with the Earth revolving around more than one person at a time…

      I wonder if in his depth of experience as an author if Richard found bad co-authors to suffer disproportionately from this debilitating personality disorder? It seems so pervasive an effect that I have many colleagues that refer to it as “The Phenotype”. That’s a code word for a narcissist in science, and it communicates to everyone listening that this is a person to avoid when it comes to collaborations. These folks are of course notorious primadonnas. They turn on the charm bracelets early in the collaboration, but always shape-shift into a turd at some point down the line.

      Ugh… despicable, aren’t they?

      • Elliot, In my experience, there can be different kinds of bad co-authors; we mention some of these people in our article. However, bad co-authors are relatively uncommon, so it is unusual to encounter more than one on a project. Richard

    • Matthew, this is a good point. In my 45 years of research experience working with dozens of people, I have had overwhelmingly good experiences with people. Many of my collaborators have become close personal friends. I always tell my grad students, for every 10 projects working with people, you will have more than 9 good experiences; so it is almost always worthwhile to collaborate with people who bring different skills to a project. And when I find someone good to work with, I often continue to work with them on follow-up projects. Richard

    • I’ve almost exclusively had fantastic co-authors. I just wonder how much of being a bad co-author is shaded by past experience. I’ve had friends that had toxic advisers, and when one of them started collaborating with me, I found their behavior strange. When I asked about it, they talked about their adviser would steal their ideas without credit, passive aggressive co-author behavior, and making them pay out of pocket (as a student) for necessary equipment to conduct experiments. Their lack of openness changed almost immediately after that conversation, but I completely understood their perspective after talking with them.

      • Matthew- I think what you describe as “strange behavior” might simply be a difference of experience. It is natural for us to erect barriers in the wake of negative experiences. Sometimes we do that because we simply do not want to discuss unpleasantries in professional settings, and/or these new barriers prevent a recurrence of the negative experience. Both negative and positive experience are interactive processes, and it is well documented that victims of negative experience often unknowingly emit signals of vulnerability to would-be bad actors.

        A well-studied example of this phenomenon concerns psychopathy. Psychopaths are for the most part on constant watch for would-be victims. They apparently evaluate virtually every person they come into contact with. The vast majority are dismissed from consideration almost immediately, because the psychopath recognizes they are not ignorant enough to go along with the diabolical ploy. My point being, the victims of psychopathy, those poor helpless people, actually facilitated the negative experience.

        Often counseling for victims of psychopathy involves teaching them how to stop emitting signals of vulnerability. It works, in spades. But it requires these victims to erect barriers. That might seem like strange behavior to you or me, but I believe it is also a natural survival mechanism.

  3. I have written two papers with a professor in another lab (he is not my advisor), both are under revision. This prof keeps changing the list of authors during the revision process without telling me or any other co-authors. I am the first author.
    1. He is the corresponding author and I don’t have any control over him.
    2. he doesn’t accept to sign an agreement.
    3. my advisor and the chair of the department are not willing to involve and stop him.
    4. I talked to the ombudsperson and she said she may not be able to do any thing.
    Is there any thing I really can do?
    1. If the paper gets rejected, can I send the paper with my own correspondence to another journal?
    2. can I upload the paper on arXiv, will it prove the order of authors? I am more worried about my authorship, as he threatens me that he will remove my name from the first author, or he may completely remove my name from the paper.

    • This prof sent me an email as below, that is how I know he is trying to take out my name from one of the two papers. He definitely has the same plan for the other paper as well.
      “Since you were busy with your PhD, I recruited another student to address the issues in the manuscript. We have been working on it extensively for about 2 months now to address all the issues raised by the reviewers. In this manuscript I still kept you as the first author, however he was the one done all the experiments and new processing anyway and rewrote the whole manuscript. ”
      This Prof claim that the new student rewrote the whole manuscript! I told this to the chair of the department, but he didn’t want to get into argument with this prof (which is from another department). My advisor is also a full professor and he is a nice guy, but he simply said I don’t want this paper! and left me alone to deal with this problem!

      • SA, Thanks for this interesting example; I can see that it is having a strong impact on you. You have already taken action on this matter by talking to the Prof, your advisor, the chair and the ombudsman. The fact that none of these 4 people is willing to intervene suggests to me that the situation is complicated and there are arguments on both sides; perhaps the Prof and others did do a lot of work on the two papers. My advice would be the following; you acknowledge that Prof and the others did a lot of work; you tell the Prof that you accept his decision to include more co-authors; and you request that he show you all further drafts, and include you in correspondence related to the two papers, and consult with you if he wants to change the list or oder of the authors. This solution will resolve the problem, even if it is not the solution that you want; you can then move on, and focus on finishing your PhD and starting new projects with other people. I hope that you find this to be useful. Richard

    • If as the lead author on the paper (or for that matter, any author on any paper) you do not have unfettered access to the manuscript prior to its submission, and/or you do not have the ability to review and edit that manuscript prior to its submission, then you need to request your name is removed from that paper.

      As for your other concerns, such as are you being unfairly excluded as an author, you should consult with a private attorney. The university shall represent the professor’s interests in any internal university complaint you might file. The university will not represent your best interests because you are a former student with no current student or faculty position with the university. And even if you were still a student there, the university would behave the same way. Long story short, the university will not help you with the dispute.

      • Thank you for your good advice. As you already guess, the situation is complicated because this Prof was having the same problem with another Ph.D. student and he removed the student’s name from the paper. That’s why nobody is interested to get into the discussion with him. My adviser said let it go and we will work on better projects. After reading your great explanations, now I think he had a point!
        I sent that Prof few emails asking him to send me the draft before submission, but he replied that he will tell me when he needs my help!
        One last question, can I upload the work on arXiv so that at least he doesn’t remove my name from the paper as he did this to another student? Or should I just wait and hope that he doesn’t do that?
        Talking to a private attorney is a good idea but I am a student and I won’t be able to afford that right now.
        I really appreciate that you took time to reply to me.

      • Dear SA,

        I think that your best option now is to wait and see what happens. From what you have said, I think that hiring a lawyer will not help your situation as you have your side and the Prof has his side. I think that your advisors suggestions are best.

        Good luck.

        Richard

  4. You mention that agreeing on general things such as “having respect for one another’s needs and interests” is often easy, but the application of such principles when actual issues arise is more difficult. Do you have any advice for translating generalities to specifics? Do initial rules and guidelines need to be more specific from the outset, or is there no way around awkward improvisation in unpredictable situations such as the one you outlined?

    • Linnea

      Every situation is different, and solutions need to be developed for each situation. It is important for senior scientists to look out for the best interests of their students, employees, and junior researchers. Senior scientists need to be generous and to make sure that the contribution of everyone is recognized. For example, reporters generally prefer to interview the senior scientist in a project, but the senior scientist should encourage reporters to interview the lead author and other co-authors, especially young members of the team.

      Richard

  5. Pingback: Tuesday taster: 29/08/2017 – Functional Ecologists

  6. What I thought I might also see mentioned in this post is how some co-authors think that adding comments in the margin qualifies as “wrote the manuscript”. For example, inserting open ending questions but not attempting to fix or wrestle with the text or find the answer to the question they are posing. This can be frustrating for first authors and I wonder if others have had similar issues.

    • There is a lot of variation in how much someone needs to contribute to be considered a co-author. In my opinion, providing some minor comments and suggestions on a manuscript should not qualify someone to be a co-author. On the other hand, if someone does major revisions of a paper or provides suggestions that change the direction of the paper, that would probably qualify them to be a co-author. The problem is the large gray area in between.

      Richard Primack

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