Evil Collaborator

Wally asks:

I’m curious if you have any advice on how to have a decent working relationship AND a collaborator/co-author relationship with someone you just can’t stand. One of my colleagues is duplicitous, a horrible gossip, trashes people (incl me) behind their backs, and tries to–and has successfully, edge people out of projects that they want to take over (they are trying to do this to me now). This person is exalted by leadership – but I just can’t stand them. However, we do research in the same topic area, and working as co-authors and having a decent collegial relationship is important. Any advice?

This sounds pretty awful.

What I don’t understand is why you would have to collaborate with this person. Collaboration is a pretty close professional interaction, a kind of professional intimacy, if you will. I couldn’t collaborate (or at least not long term) with someone who I thought was a terrible person. I have to trust the collaborators to be honest, to pull their weight, to respect me and my group’s contribution, to be someone who’s safe to brainstorm ideas with without judgment or ridicule. Our professional values have to be pretty closely aligned in order for the collaboration to work. I don’t see how a backstabbing, opportunistic, duplicitous individual would be a good collaborator to anyone.

Wally, do you absolutely have to interact with this person? Like, is there shared equipment involved? You can’t just get around them? Why do you feel you have to be co-authors?

This person sounds like someone I would avoid in a wide berth and, in case I couldn’t just get out of the interaction, I would be civil but aloof, and make myself scarce as soon as possible.

There is a colleague I used to be friends and collaborators with years ago (at least I thought we were friends, but it was likely never true). However, he offended me badly: he badmouthed one of my grad students in front of the whole faculty, via email, because my student got an award that the colleague thought his students should have received. This colleague generally thinks he’s better than everyone else and is quite unpopular (brings in money, but doesn’t pull his weight in teaching or service). I avoid interactions with him as much as I can. I do not sabotage him or his students, but I don’t do him any favors or share any information, good or bad, with him either. I consider him an arrogant, selfish, untrustworthy snake (the arrogance will be his downfall, because he genuinely thinks everyone else in the department is stupid and unaware that of how he is and how he operates).

Wally’s colleague seems to be the same. Part of political savvy is knowing who the good guys are and whom to absolutely avoid and try to protect self from. If most of the rest of the colleagues are OK, then you can all help each other and basically shut the bad guy out.

A friend of mine said about collaborations: “Collaborations are like kissing. You wouldn’t do it with someone just because they’re next door.” I have always found that I do my best work with a few really good collaborators and the rest on my own; it’s much better for productivity and sanity than nominally numerous but mostly stressful, dysfunctional collaborations.

Blogosphere, what say you? How should Wally proceed? 



  1. As context – we have the same mentor and thus use our mentor’s data. So we do have to collaborate. We are also in a small group of people who do research in a certain population, so we are always in the same meetings, social occasions, etc. They are on the market this year, so I am hoping beyond hope they take a job elsewhere, but I have no doubt my current university will fight to keep them. So, we may end up being long-term colleagues – and not collaborating isn’t really an option.

  2. Ugh, that sucks, wally. I suppose I don’t really understand your field very well then, so perhaps other readers can make more helpful comments. If you absolutely cannot avoid interacting with this person, keep it friendly and aloof, and, as they’d say, hold your cards close to your chest.

    There is another aspect that perhaps should be brought up. I have had several collaborations with people who are universally thought of as difficult. In reality, they were a bit more grumpy and volatile than most people, but they generally responded well to me being straightforward. However, these people were not opportunistic backstabbers; even those who disliked them would probably agree that they had integrity.

  3. I agree with your personal take on political savvy (i.e. knowing who to avoid), but I do get the impression that in the cut throat environment of today’s academia, so much is about making opportunistic choices. Of course, collaborating with real a**h***s or outright evil people should be avoided at all costs, but it feels like so many people are rubbing shoulders with each other simply because the other person has more power or money or a bigger network and with that “a name”.
    I try to NOT go along with that, but it does feel like you have to make the choice between being morally right & doing what makes you happy and fulfilled on the one hand, and faking who you are to become part of an inner circle just for opportunity’s sake.
    The first may be right for you, but nowadays it is all about large collaborations and networks and consortia. Beating them is out of the question, so joining seems like to only option unless you want to be a scientific hermit who stands on the sidelines without sufficient money as others go for the bait/kill and run with it.

    But maybe I am just not having a very good week.

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