Saturday, November 08, 2008

How to start collaborations.

Someone asked about this in a comment, implying it was something that should be taught in grad school.

Here's how I think I learned:

1. Panhandling from a poor lab.

This was out of necessity. I used to be the kind of kid who was shy about answering the phone at home, so you can imagine I had to get over a lot of shyness to go door-to-door in my department asking for reagents and equipment (and sometimes for someone to show me how to use the equipment).

I met a lot of people this way and found out what was going on in all the labs.

Step 1: Know who's doing what.

2. Trial and error.

I did a couple of collaborations in grad school, set up by my advisor. One went pretty well; the other ended prematurely at my request. I've blogged about that one before.

Step 2: Know who knows what they're doing, and who is going to treat you like dirt.

3. The kindness of strangers

I set up collaborations as a postdoc primarily by asking for things, just like in grad school, only this time I did it by email. My best collaboration of all time was done almost exclusively via email and Fedex.

Step 3: Pick people who respond promptly, who communicate clearly, and who genuinely want their stuff to work for you.

4. Talk about publications up front.

If it's going to be your paper, say what you're doing, what your goals are, what your vision is, and what you need them to do for you. Make it clear what it's in it for them, and don't be afraid to make the boundaries clear, too. If you're going to be first author and you absolutely will not accept a co-first* author* scenario, make that clear, but also be aware of what kinds of expectation that sets up.

Most people will appreciate constant communication on this subect, with some wiggle room. Experiments are added during revision, which often means adding authors or changing the order. Most people will be okay with this provided everyone is kept in the loop and has a chance to voice their opinion (and maybe even influence the final decision).

Some people will turn down authorship and then avoid giving you information you need to finalize publication. Other people will be offended at the suggestion of discussing authorship before the project even begins. With those people you can talk about doing pilot experiments first, but nail them down on meeting to discuss nuts and bolts at a set time after that.

If you're trying to get on other people's papers, offer to do an experiment but make it clear that you're sticking to the standard rule: if you contribute a figure or a part of a figure, you deserve to be an author, too. This can help your CV, particularly when you're a junior grad student or postdoc (for example), but don't let yourself get too distracted with doing these kinds of favors unless you get something in return. For example, I did a couple of these kinds of figures as a way to get unpublished reagents that were being used in the course of the work. Everybody knew that was the arrangement, and I think it was win-win for everyone.

If your potential co-authors keep ducking the authorship issue in the beginning, they're likely to put up a fight about it later on. Avoid these types. They're usually insecure, bad communicators who have an agenda of their own, and they know that open communication makes it hard to sneak around. You can try to pin them down, but keep in mind they can always change their story later, when it's too late for you to argue (i.e. they can take your name off the paper without your permission) or find someone else (i.e. when they did critical experiments for you, and you can't publish the work without their permission).

Yes, as a postdoc there are some special pitfalls. In my opinion, it's not worth it to try to lodge a formal complaint if all you did was 1 figure and got left off the author list. Do what we all do, and most of us have had this happen once. But once is enough. Choose carefully who you want to help out.


5. Publish the damn work already.

I have several papers pending right now, and they're all collaborations. In some cases, it's my fault and/or my PI's fault. In the other cases, it's my collaborator's fault. There's only so much I can do about papers where I'm a middle author, but I resent knowing I did work for these people and it's just sitting around. I'm sure my co-authors feel the same way about my papers.

The key thing here is to keep people informed when it's your responsibility to get the thing published.

And if you're the middle author, don't be afraid to send an email every 6 months or so asking how it's going and whatever happened with that manuscript. It probably won't make much difference, but in one case I found out after the fact that the paper had been revised drastically and accepted at a different journal, and my collaborators never sent me the manuscript. So I would not have known to add it to my CV unless I had, for some narcissistic or competitive reason, Pubmedded myself. Totally inappropriate, but sometimes it's good to check in and make sure they're not (inadvertently or otherwise) screwing you over.

And that, my friends, or more or less all there is to it. Questions on this subject are welcome.



At 3:39 PM, Blogger Ewan said...

Please, take this in the positive way it's offered...: this is (I think) one of your very best and most useful posts, because it *balances* the (sometimes merited) caveats and potential pessimism with positive and helpful advice.
I also happen to agree with amost everything, but that's really beside the point :). One note: even after becoming faculty and even in some cases possibly funded some of the work (!), trying to get collaborators to *write the damn thing already* can be incredibly frustrating, annoying, time-consuming and genuinely harmful when that 'progress report' from last year has not translated into a paper this year.

Anyway - I just noticed a different (and welcome) tone to this post, so wanted to note it and offer appreciation. Hope I'm not coming across as condescending or otherwise a jerk :-(.

At 7:45 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

THANK YOU for highlighting #4. While I haven't encountered any authorship issues (yet), many, many of my friends have. In most of those cases, if authorship distribution had been outlined at the start, many issues would have been avoided.

At 9:41 AM, Blogger GirlPostdoc said...

Hey thanks Ms PhD for answering the post:

That was really useful advice. Early in my grad school career, I tried to get involved in two collaborations. The first one, I and another student did an immense amount of work collecting data. It started from a discussion group led by a post-doc When we started it was agreed that everyone who gathered data would be an author with the postdoc as first author. Then she decided that she only wanted one other author. The other grad student and I both got called into her office and told we were now off the paper. It was a shocking experience. The second collaboration ended similarly. I did a lot of work but was then booted from authorship. I'm not sure if it is me or them? I suspect it is them.

At 2:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been in collaborations where authorship and ownership issues were openly discussed and agreed upon beforehand,as you mentioned. only to have the other parties completely go back on their word and disregard it when the time comes to actually publish. It has led to a lot of bad blood between us and our collaborators, some of whom we are no longer on speaking terms. but I think this is more to do with the personality of the people invovled. Some people are simply jerks and will find any means to get ahead at the expense of others. I have had my work "stolen" from me by my collaborators. I just am concerned what these people are teaching their grad students and postdocs by way of their example.

At 8:46 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


When you like a post, just write "Great post!"

Adding all this apologetic crap? Yes, that's condescending. And unnecessary.

Girlpostdoc and Anon 2:37,

Here's the thing. Did you contribute publication-quality work?

Was it included in the publication?

I have only had someone co-opt my work without giving me credit ONCE that I know of. I was an undergrad when I did the work, and he's now HHMI. No one asked me to make a publication-quality figure, but my data was included in the paper.

He knows who he is. I think he knows, if he's ever thought about it, that what he did was wrong.

I still kinda hope he's going to find out, if there's a hell, exactly what it's like there.

Fucking asshole.

I've since learned that little niceties of co-authorship etiquette can help you make your case for co-authorship.

ASKING if someone would like you to make a final figure is one way to make their lives easier, draw attention to your contribution, and force them to have this conversation.

If you find after the fact that your data has been included in a paper without your permission, ask the corresponding author - not the first author - if they realized they did this. Sometimes they won't even know where the data came from.

You might get lucky and they'll be so embarrassed as to publish an erratum listing you as an additional author.

If you're not so lucky, you can still send a message that you've got their number and won't fall for this crap again.

If there's one thing I've noticed about scientists, it's that many ascribe to the "keep your enemies close" theory. If they know you have dirt on them, they'll be your best friend just to keep you from telling anyone else. You never know when you might find them trying to pay you back a favor for being so forgiving and generous.

But like I said, live and learn. You won't make that mistake again, and if anybody asks, you don't have to keep your mouth shut. It might be water under the bridge, but it still happened.

Girlpostdoc, when a project is led by a postdoc and they try to fuck you over, GO TO THE PI.

Chances are good that the PI is the corresponding author, in which case this is the most appropriate thing to do anyway. Tell them you weren't clear on what was expected for co-authorship, but you did X, Y and Z and were told A,B and C by the postdoc. See what they say to that.

If the PI condones this kind of behavior, RUN LIKE HELL. It's only the extraordinarily shortsighted assholes who don't care who they step on to get to the top.

I'm betting the PI doesn't know it's happening. Most PIs nowadays are savvy enough to know, unless they really go out of their way to squash us, eventually even we little girls are going to come back to bite them in the ass.

Chomp. Chomp.

At 12:14 PM, Blogger Drugmonkey said...

Great Post!

At 8:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi I'm anon 2:07 from before
you wrote 'Girlpostdoc and Anon 2:37,
Here's the thing. Did you contribute publication-quality work?
Was it included in the publication?'

answer is yes, and yes. (otherwise I wouldn't have cared)

it was the PI of the other group that did it (went back on his word about who gets credit for what, and left me off the author list even though my critical data was in there). when I reminded him about our open agreement he threw a tantrum at me, how dare I question him and his decisions?? Please. I may just a postdoc but it's my work and my data, shouldn't I at least be a middle author? And for postdocs, publications are important whereas for already-powerful PI's, what does it matter to them to share the credit where it's due? I think he wanted to make it look like all the work was done in his group.

unfortunately he was more powerful than my advisor so my advisor didn't want to rock the boat and just told me to not fight it and let it go, lest the more-powerful-PI get mad and take my advisor off the grant as a 'collaborator'....well couple years later the same more-powerful-PI did a similar thing to my advisor: invited him to co-write another mega multi-million dollar joint proposal, got ideas and info and files from him, then went and submitted the proposal without including my advisor on it. And the proposal got funded. I told my advisor to just 'let it go'...he wasn't amused but he knew exactly where I was coming from!

At 3:34 PM, Anonymous Heavy Equipment Parts said...

I just think that the motivation to do all she does is quite exhilirating. I mean if Oprah Winfrey came from the slums of the city streets and now claimed to be the richest woman alive, then anybody can fulfill their dream


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