Ethics, personal views and chosing collaborators

Choosing collaborators is an important part of the scientific enterprise. You are agreeing to combine forces with someone to tackle a scientific problem, but there is often much more than just the science involved. Everyone has their ways of doing things, quirks and general differences about the way they approach their work. Sometimes these differences mesh together nicely and a collaboration sails along, other times they do not.

When it comes to the work side of things, usually you can get a pretty good feel for how your potential colleague will work with you. It's rare for me, for instance, to strike up any collaboration with someone who I am not familiar with from either the literature or through personal connections. I would say the latter is also far more common than the former. But sometimes personal connections reveal far more than just what people do as scientists.

So, my question for today is: How much does someone's personal life affect your willingness to collaborate with them?

For instance, if the person held strongly opposing social views to those you believe in, would that make you reconsider working with them? What if you were aware that they cheated on their taxes? Their spouse? How about if they have a substance abuse issue? What if you found the person socially intolerable? What type of personal baggage would make you look past the science and decide that a potentially good working collaboration is not something you might consider?

Is it all about the science?

24 responses so far

  • Psyc Girl says:

    This is an interesting point PLS. Now that I'm on the tenure track, I find myself being very careful about who I will collaborate with - I don't have time or resources to waste on unproductive collaborations.

    When I was a grad student, a close friend and I vowed we would do research and publish together when we both finished - we were both with advisors who were not very quick with publications and had a number of research interests that overlapped.

    In the meantime, however, a number of difficult things happened in our friendship and I don't consider her to be a very close friend anymore. I find it hard to get over those issues and just put on my scientist hat and collaborate with her now. If we don't have time to be good friends to one another, I don't understand how we would have time to collaborate. In contrast, my friend seems to see them as completely separate.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    One of those things you mentioned has a clear prediction of potential compromise in work output.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    There is potential for several work-related complications to come out of just what I mentioned, but yes, some more than others.

    @ Psyc Girl - I don't feel like I need to be friends with my collaborators, but I'm also not sure I would collaborate with someone I found objectionable on certain levels.

  • GMP says:

    I have a department friend with whom I tried collaborating but it really didn't work out, so even though he keeps trying to initiate new projects together, now I evade working with him as much as I can. He's laid back, has a great sense of humor and is always giving finger to the world, and is great fun to hang with socially. However, he's also intolerable to work with: doesn't respect deadlines, is rude to journal editors and program managers, outspent his share of money on a grant on more than one occasion.

    I am not religious by any stretch of imagination, and have two collaborators who I know are devout church goers. This aspect of our lives never comes up (thankfully!) so we are just friendly colleagues (I don't even know what denomination one of them belongs to). I do not share much personal information with them, nor they with me. Nontechnical communications are restricted to small talk, but we have similar work ethics and standards for work and publishing, so things go smoothly.

    My best collaboration involves two experimentalists (I am a theorist), a senior prominent one and a somewhat junior (still older than me) one. We have had a number of high-profile papers together and it's interesting how we mesh. The senior one is very in-your-face and has good connections in journals and funding agencies. He and I have similar technical writing styles (on the aggressive side) and somewhat bad tempers (so when we clash, it's not pretty); he has been a great mentor to me since I started as faculty. The junior experimentalist is one of the most even-tempered people I have ever met and keeps us all from imploding; he's incredibly smart, a deep thinker, and in interpersonal collaborations tends to be on the passive-aggressive side; he also tends to undersell in his writing, which is not a good thing. We all have complementary technical expertises, and in terms of creative thinking and writing we play off of one another quite nicely -- manage to get the best out of one another. It does help that I like them as people and we have similar political and social views.

    I also work in several larger collaborations and that's where your work ethics and willingness to adhere to strict deadlines comes to play more than anything else. I think you can often work with someone well even if you would never hang out with them socially, but in my opinion the best long-term collaborations do involve a successful mesh of both professional and personal treats.

  • GMP says:

    Oops, I meant professional and personal traits, not treats.

  • Normally I don't care about what folks do in their personal life, but seeing how some people act and behave outside of science in a few very rare cases can color my view of how I perceive them or the integrity of their work in science. I mean if you are a shady motherfucker in your personal life, who is to say you aren't shady with the data? But I don't give a shit if someone has a drinking problem or likes to go skiing from time to time. That's their business, not mine.

  • anonymous says:

    I have had a friend/coworker/collaborator whom I like and respect, but her personal life is constantly on the brink of disaster and it makes her really undependable. It's never her fault, she's just one of those people who has the worst luck in the world. Have a meeting scheduled and you're guaranteed her house will be hit by a plane falling out of the sky. She also habitually can't seem to finish projects, which leaves it up to others to do.

  • phagenista says:

    Life's too short to bring yourself into continued contact with people you don't like spending time (even email time) with and everyone has their personal standards that influence their choice of friends. I've collaborated with academics with mental illnesses (and endured delays, etc. associated with their diseases) because I got along well with them, and have avoided efficient people with whom I don't particularly gel with (or who have declared problems with half the field and collaborating with them would have marked me in a camp). I can see where others would disagree with me, but there are so many bureaucratic aspects to our jobs, why wouldn't we keep the science parts as fun and enjoyable as possible? For me, that means liking my collaborators enough to want to chat on the phone every month and have dinner or a beer together one night at every meeting we're both at.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    What if you've heard them make a blatantly bigoted statement? That doesn't change their science or ability to meet deadlines, so it's cool?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Dude, nobody forces you to collaborate with people you just don't like very much....

  • Dr. O says:

    I don't think I could collaborate with somebody who annoyed me for any reason, including those who come across as racist, misogynistic, or just rude in general. But that would have more to do with not wanting to interact with the particular person because they made me uncomfortable, rather than having an issue with their politics.

    I surely wouldn't have a problem collaborating with somebody who had different religious or political views than my own - as long as they weren't openly belligerent/nosy about my views. On the same line of thinking, if a collaborator never speaks of their underlying racist, misogynistic, or otherwise narrow-minded mindset, I wouldn't go digging to make sure they weren't a dumb-ass douchebag before collaborating with them.

  • chemprof says:

    I had a productive collaboration that served me well when I was still on the tenure track. It was with a top scientist who I knew didn't get along with everyone, but was still well respected. My views changed when he behaved inappropriately with one of my colleagues and I realized that others in the field were also losing respect for him. I found it too hard to collaborate with someone I don't personally respect, but also saw that in a relatively small scientific community, others are quick to judge those who collaborate with someone who has a reputation for behaving inappropriately in their personal life. This can have pretty damaging consequences for a young scientist, and leave you with very few people to talk to at conferences (as others who continued to work with him learnt).

  • antipodean says:

    We don't work with arseholes and we don't work with people without a sense of humour. It isn't always obvious until you start collaborating with them though. So sometimes we just wash our hands after one project is finished and plead lack of time to start another project with people who have been difficult or wasted our time.

  • science says:

    I am in a late-night-in-the-lab kind of field, and I have a colleague who shows up in the middle of the night when he knows that there will be young women at work and then he behaves inappropriately. He has not yet been stupid enough to behave actually criminally but, for an example, take the memorable occasion when he regaled his captive audience with a description of his taste in pornography. The situation is made possible by the fact that he and I are employed by different institutions, neither of which played host to his crass conversation (if it had been one of our home institutions, it would have been straightforward to launch befitting bureaucratic defences in his direction).

    This colleague is a prolific scientist and exactly as much of an insufferable ass as you are imagining. I have benefitted from the scientific interactions we have had, and furthermore he has never crossed a line in his personal behaviour towards me.

    Now that I'm tenured, I'm removing him from my research circle and myself from his. I do (and have done, over the years) all I can to ensure that any young women I am directly advising are not interacting with him. This is entirely based on his personality and propensity for harassing; I do not have a scientific quibble with him.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Now that I'm tenured, I'm removing him from my research circle and myself from his.

    So, it's tolerable as long as it's useful, but as soon as it has served the purpose then it's time to draw the line?

  • GMP says:

    I think science meant that now she has tenure, the jerk harasser can no longer hurt her career too badly as he could if she were untenured (in retaliation for removing him from projects and collaborations). I also waited to get tenure to sever some collaborations that were giving me grief; it's not a good idea to create enemies before those external evaluation letters come in...

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    A slightly different question --

    Would you collaborate with a MAJOR BigCheez in your field, knowing that:

    1) that he is a world-class egomaniac and would claim credit for all results;

    BUT

    2) the resources and science on offer are incredible, including up-front $$, great (and fun!) science, potential for Glamorous publications and greatly enhanced odds for future grant funding;

    AND

    3) it would be pretty clear (from the types of methods employed) which aspects of the work were performed at each site.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Certainly there are tactful ways of removing your lab from sexual harassment, no? I'm not sure I would value a single letter at the expense of my students, but to each their own.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    If the downside stopped at egomaniac, sure. Those people are only going to pull the wool over the eyes of the uniformed and those unlikely to have any influence on your career. I don't think I would put all my eggs in that basket, for sure, but I would collaborate under those circumstances.

  • For me, it depends on the issue. I would not work with someone who is sexist/racist/homophobic/anti-something and showed this in words or actions. I would not trust them to deal well with students of mine who happened to be in that group. I don't care if someone is cheating on their partner--that is none of my business. Someone who bragged about being a tax cheat would give me pause, since I would question their judgement. I have worked well with people who have strongly held religious beliefs that are different from my own, since they were professionals and left religion out of our working relationship. I would not work with someone who tried to convert me after I indicated no interest. I would be reluctant to continue working with someone with a substance abuse problem, since it has a strong chance of disrupting the work.

    If I were already working with someone, and found out one of these things about them, what I would do would depend on what stage the project was in, but I would probably finish the project out. For someone I find morally repugnant, but don't question their scientific expertise, I would finish out the project and not collaborate in the future. UNLESS they did something to a student of mine (like sexual harassment), where I would prioritize protecting my students.

  • GMP says:

    She said she had removed her own female students from interacting with the harasser guy, so that's both tactful and effective at addressing the problem. Removing the whole lab from collaboration pre-tenure would have potentially put her tenure at risk; I think she did the right thing for both her students and her tenure.

    Btw, never underestimate the destructive power of one disgruntled asshole. One bad external evaluation letter has been known to sink a candidate.

  • lylebot says:

    There's an interesting test case playing out in comments at Panda's Thumb and John Wilkins' blog. Background: two philosophers, Glenn Branch and James Fetzer, guest-edited a special issue of a journal. There is some controversy between the guest editors, editors-in-chief, and authors of articles which is beside the point here. The relevance to PLS' question is that James Fetzer, who otherwise seems to be a well-respected philosopher, turns out to be a 9/11 truther and all-around conspiracy theorist. Blog comment threads keep getting derailed by this, even though it has nothing to do with the controversy.

    I have a collaborator that's a bit of a conspiracy nut, and I've never thought twice about it. But I have to admit that it's pretty easy to dismiss Fetzer entirely, not knowing anything about his work outside his blog comments. Would I want to collaborate with someone that sets themselves up to be dismissed outright?

  • Confounding says:

    While as a graduate student my ability to dictate who I collaborate with is not, shall we say, always my own, I've pretty much managed to avoid - and would continue to avoid - someone who's beliefs I found reprehensible. Homopobia, racism, sexism etc. - I value interaction with my collaborators too much, and the work would suffer through my outright desire never to deal with them.

  • anon says:

    Ethics definitely come into my collaborations. I don't mind working with people who are very different from myself, including political views etc. However, I do not really wish to collaborate with openly racist people and endure their comments. It takes the fun out of it. I also do not wish to collaborate with people who I know take undue credit for, or steal, others ideas. I have been dicked like this myself and it raises my bloodpressure too much.

Leave a Reply