A few years ago, I met one of the leading scholars in my field at a conference. In fact, we presented our papers in the same session. To my shock, he came up to me after my presentation to compliment my work and asked if I wanted to collaborate with him on a research project, since he shared interest in the same topic.
At the time, I couldn’t believe I’d actually have the chance to work with one of my academic heroes! Since I was finishing up my Ph.D., I was also excited about the possibility of such a big-name scholar helping me navigate and experience success in a competitive job market.
Fast-forward two years: we managed to start the project but have not been able to get a single paper published. To make matters worse, I’ve done most of the heavy lifting for this collaboration, even though he insisted on being first author. I’ve done most of the data analysis, and I’ve definitely done the majority of the writing. And when I send him drafts, it takes forever for him to get back to me with his edits. (I have to email him at least three or four times before he responds with comments.)
I’m beyond frustrated. I want to confront him, but I fear that there will be professional repercussions to doing so. However, if I do nothing, I feel like years of labor will go to waste. This whole situation has me feeling super anxious, which makes it all the more difficult to find the motivation to work. I have no idea what to do, and the worst part is I feel like I have no one to talk to about this because he is such a big name in the field.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Before anything, let us first say: your frustrations are 100 percent legitimate. Given the uneven power dynamic between you and your collaborator -- both in terms of rank and his status in the field -- you might be questioning your own feelings. But based on what you’re telling us, the relationship between you and your collaborator is bordering on exploitative.
A number of thoughts might be swirling through your head: Maybe things will get better. Maybe I just have to pay my dues with him and prove myself. Maybe all the pain will be worth it once we get that elusive publication completed.
Trust us, you’re not the first faculty member we’ve met who’s encountered this issue. In all the years we’ve coached faculty through the Faculty Success Program, across all ranks, disciplines and institutional contexts, this is one of the most common complaints we hear, especially from those who are junior, women, people of color or all of the above. The power dynamics that exist between you and your collaborator make it all the more challenging to interject about something you feel is going wrong. Even if we can, in our heads, acknowledge that something about this collaboration is off, it is really hard to initiate such a difficult conversation with a colleague who has more power and influence.
Of course, it’s impossible for us to know all the details of your specific situation, but we want to share some strategies for you to experiment with that have worked with many of the faculty with whom we work. We admit that this type of conversation takes practice, but we can assure you there is a way to engage in, dare we say, healthy conflict. We can’t promise you that these strategies will work perfectly, but we do know that: 1) you will definitely feel like you have more agency in the situation and 2) you’ll learn the mechanics of navigating a challenging situation within academe.
Clarify the roles for first, second and third authorship -- in writing and on the front end. Our advice before starting any project involving other scholars -- graduate students included -- is to clarify roles and responsibilities and the order of authorship in writing on the front end of the project. Having this kind of conversation up front can be helpful for managing difficult conversations later in the project. Discussing and developing a plan on the front end for what happens if a collaborator does not pull their weight for whatever reason can help ease the tension and keep relationships intact if you run into difficulties later in the project.
During this initial discussion, it’s important to map the tasks required to complete the project and think through who is the best person on the team for each task. Everyone should take an honest look at their list of current projects, areas of expertise and time so as to determine where best they can contribute to the project.
Recently, one of us -- Joy -- was invited to collaborate on a project, and because of her current project load, time and faculty rank, she volunteered to be third author. Further, she clearly stated what she was able and not able to do. She also made it clear that first authorship, in her opinion, indicates taking the lead on the project, similar to the role of a project manager.
You should begin the collaborative experience by setting a positive tone for open and regular communication about how individuals are progressing. If a co-author is having trouble completing certain tasks, it’s OK to renegotiate those tasks with an understanding that authorship order may switch as a result.
When you have this kind of conversation up front, a later discussion about negotiating order of authorship will not be as difficult. In fact, in many ways, it will be expected. In some cases, first authors are relieved to no longer be first author, because they realize later that they do not have the time and/or energy to devote to all of the duties of serving as first author. During this initial discussion, it’s also important to discuss what happens if people involved do not complete assigned tasks, which brings us to our next point.
Initiate a conversation. If you find that somewhere down the project road you are doing more work than you think you should be doing as second or third author (or if you find that you’re unable to keep up with the tasks assigned to you), then it’s time to request to have a conversation with the project lead (first author). You can either call or email to set this up. We recommend email so that you don’t feel pressured to say what you have to say before the face-to-face meeting.
The email, in which you ask for 30 minutes to discuss the collaborative project in person, should be short, specific and pleasant in tone. If your collaborator is in another part of the country, then online meeting platforms, such as Zoom or Google Hangout, will work equally as well.
Have the difficult conversation. First, we want to acknowledge how terrifying it can feel to have a difficult conversation when conflict arises, especially if the person has more power and influence than you do. Further, people can have a lot of guilt and shame when they don’t complete tasks on time (or don’t complete tasks at all).
To reduce some of that, try to maintain a posture of compassion and understanding about why someone -- including you -- may not be pulling their weight on the project. You can start the conversation with something like, “Thanks for making time for us to meet today to discuss the project. I want to check in with you about how things are going for both of us on the project.”
From here you can state the facts about workload and recap your understanding about the initial agreement. After you share those details -- and the other person has a chance to share -- self-assess to see if you still feel strongly about changing the order of authorship. If you do then you can introduce the idea as a possible solution to move the project forward.
At the end of the conversation, be sure to thank that person for their time and for having an open and honest conversation about the project. If time permits you can circle back to discuss some of the points that should have been discussed in the initial meeting, so that you’re clear moving forward about who is responsible for what. (See our first suggestion.)
We know some of these strategies might give you angst. Anthony, the other author of this piece, grew up in a family where most of his relatives swept conflict under the rug, acted passive-aggressively and/or talked smack behind each other’s back. While that might provide good material for a comedy series, he acknowledges that it may not bode so well for his academic career.
This is all to say that engaging in healthy conflict was a skill Anthony developed in the early stages of his faculty career. One thing that has helped Anthony overcome his fear is to think to himself, “If my own research assistants were feeling awkward about something in our working relationship, how would I want them to confront the situation?” That helps him get over his fear, because at that point he realizes recalibration conversations are an important skill he wants his own students to develop.
We want to acknowledge, too, that because there are many, many exploitative people in academe, our strategies may not work. In this case, the “right” thing to do may be to cut the cord, even if academic logic suggests that you “tough it out.” Sometimes severing professional ties with toxic colleagues is the best thing you can do. (And trust us, if they are this toxic, many others in the field will already know this and understand why you cut the cord.)
Experiencing a conflict as a scholar in the academy should be expected. The good news is that you can engage in healthy conflict resolution strategies that keep relationships intact when disagreement surfaces. Engaging with these skills is crucial for thriving in the academy, and you can learn more from our webinar, Engaging in Healthy Conflict, that we offer every year. As faculty coaches, we’ve worked with many clients who have used these strategies and have experienced success in resolving conflicts in healthy ways. And remember, think of these difficult conversations as a muscle you have to exercise. It may feel weird at first, but the more you engage the skills, the more confident you’ll feel.
Just remember that you may not walk away from the conversation with everything you desired. It will probably be more of a compromise: you get a little of what you want, and so does the other person. Figuring out what to do with the residual, leftover frustration -- and identifying productive outlets for it -- will be vital for your own health and well-being.
Peace and productivity,
Anthony Ocampo, director of campus workshops at the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity and an associate professor of sociology at Cal Poly Pomona
Joy Gaston Gayles, professor of higher education and a University Faculty Scholar at North Carolina State University