At some time in everyone’s academic lives, there will be cause for collaboration angst.
It may all start golden: big ideas, excitement about working with new colleagues, the potential for fancy-pants funding and intellectual glory.
And if you were invited onto a prestigious team by a favoured prof…well, you’d almost fall over signing up, right?
Then, down the track, you’re looking at the fifth ‘I still haven’t done it’ email from Collaborator 2, or – worse still – finding no email from Collaborator 3…ever.
How many times is it physiologically safe to roll one’s eyes at Collaborator 4 for declaring yet again that they should be first author?
I’ve written before about how to find research friends and make co-writing work, which have focused for the most part on the positive habits and traits that lead to successful, satisfying collaborations.
This post focuses on the flipside.
Finding out that your co-writer or co-investigator is awful to work with could be a gradual soul-destroying process, or a very rapid soul-destroying process. Either way? Soul destroyed.
Added to the mix are complicated intersections of status, power and privilege, and often emotional baggage from professional (or deeper) friendships. The earlier you can see that the collaboration isn’t going to work, the easier it may be to duck out of the project, or at least implement processes that will mean you emerge with your sanity and sense of self intact.
Here are 5 signs that you may have a toxic collaborator:
1. They consistently miss deadlines. Unfortunately, this is one of the key, but harder, signs to get a handle on. Until they start missing deadlines, you don’t know they’re going to miss deadlines, right?
It can also be a tough one to judge. While heinous collaborators who have complete disregard for deadlines and the effects on their (often junior) colleagues are fairly easy to spot, it’s harder to call it when it’s someone who just seems to have bad luck and rolling crises in their lives, ready excuses for why stuff wasn’t done, or instant promises for handing things over ‘next week’.
2. They frequently say ‘I’m the first author’ (without actually acting like the first author…). This issue is about confusion over roles, or unsuitability for them, and it’s also about abiding by scholarly protocols around professional behaviour (e.g. there are clear guidelines for who should be named first author on publications, or to be a named author at all, in the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research [829 kb pdf]).
It’s all very well to want to be the first author, but this brings with it a swag of responsibilities and levels of contribution. Saying it doesn’t make it so, nor does being a senior academic, or being the one who went to university with the journal’s editor.
3. They don’t listen to feedback. They don’t want to hear it – not from you, other members of the team, or the “<bleeping> reviewers”. Not only does this make them a difficult collaborator, chances are they’re difficult in all aspects of their life and terrible human beings.
Ahem. But, seriously, not being able to respond appropriately and thoughtfully to feedback is a big red flag. Research and writing always improves with testing out on others, finding out what needs re-casting, what you’ve missed, or which sections need more clarity. Nothing is ever ‘finished’ or perfect. Any researcher who doesn’t get that will be a challenge to those who do.
4. They’re all take and no give. (There was a really catchy rhyming subtitle I was going to use here that involved the term ‘banker’ but I have given it up in the interests of good taste and professionalism)
When you’re working with others, there’s a pool of goodwill that needs tending. As with the most important consumables, like air and clean water, collaborative goodwill is not an endless resource.
For example: Can’t do the refs on that paper? That’s OK, Collaborator 3 will do it this time seeing as you were the liaison and proofed the final draft for the last one. However, if it was Collaborator 2 who was asking for a bit of slack…we-ell, Collaborator 2 has yet to do any of the real work on re-writes, or shown any initiative in approaching potential industry partners, or done any of the data-crunching from the last round of fieldwork, or…you get the idea.
There’s nothing wrong with asking others to help you out and take up your slack every so often, as long as you have done (and would do) the same for them. If your collaborator only ever slurps from the pool of goodwill, but never brings any of their own, that is a sure sign of a toxic collaborator.
5. They communicate badly. I’ve left this one till last because it’s often the most destructive of behaviours.
Any of the first four signs are bad enough, but if they exist alongside this one, I’d be happily voting that collaborator off the island.
There is no set formula for good communication because it depends on your collaborators and the project at hand. For some teams, regular face-to-face meetings are a must. For others, emails with updates and questions are enough.
The dynamics are highly personalised, and what works for one of your projects (with a longer timeline and familiar collaborators) won’t for another (where the collaborator is new to you and the project must be delivered in six months). The power relations within the team will also have an influence, as does basic personality. @thesiswhisperer wrote about the damage that silence can do (“Feeding the crazy“), and these considerations should be a part of any collaborative team.
Basically, is everyone happy with the way the team communicates? It doesn’t have to be that everyone communicates in the same way – just that everyone can understand and live with how others operate, and – most importantly – trust that the work will get done.
Now that you know how to tell if you may have a toxic collaborator, what can you do about it? Well, now that would have to be another post…