There is something that happened with a colleague and, as always, I fear I am overreacting or imaging things (welcome to being a woman), but my gut tells me I’m not and that I should stick to my guns.

There is a colleague with whom I’ve collaborated on and off for years. He and another colleague are experimentalists and go after money together, but when they work together with me, they always seem to expect I will come with my own funds and do the work that’s beneficial to them. I brought this issue up a bunch of times, but this never changes. They basically want me to fund my own work, and since our interests are often aligned, that often works out, but still. Another colleague says he often collaborates with others without going for join money, and honestly that’s great, but I don’t have five grants on similar topics. Generally, the technical distance among my active projects can and usually is fairly large, and being a theorist I am usually less flush than experimentalists, so my people are already double booked for stuff I have funding for, without me siphoning their time from funded projects for something a colleague thinks would be unfunded fun to do.

Anyway, I’ve always considered this colleague to be among the nicer ones around, but I’m not so sure anymore, honestly.

This is what happened, and you can tell me, blogosphere, if I am overreacting.

There is a popular class of techniques, let’s call them Triangle , that have been utilized everywhere in the last few years, in particular to address the class of problems I will call Apple, among other applications. Apple are a class of problems of interest to many in my broad area of work, but I am not interested in them. In any case, applying Triangle to Apple is not particularly novel at this point. People interested in related problems, such as Orange or Peach, are also looking into applying Triangle to their problems, which is understandable and reasonable. To summarize, this is common now:

Red Triangle Pointed Up on Apple iOS 16.4Plus on Apple iOS 16.4Red Apple on Apple iOS 16.4Heavy Equals Sign on Apple iOS 16.4Slightly Smiling Face on Apple iOS 16.4

However, the problems I am interested in are fairly far removed from Apple. I will call the problem I am interested in Clover. Now, my group has applied Triangle to Clover and it’s fine, just doesn’t really do what I want to show on Clover.

Red Triangle Pointed Up on Apple iOS 16.4Plus on Apple iOS 16.4Four Leaf Clover on Apple iOS 16.4Heavy Equals Sign on Apple iOS 16.4Neutral Face on Apple iOS 16.4

So we dug and dug, and realized there’s a class of techniques from the same general (broad!) field as Triangle, but still quite different; let’s call it Kapow (for the explosion emoji). It turns out, using Kapow to address Clover is exactly what I wanted and it’s perfect.

Collision on Apple iOS 16.4Plus on Apple iOS 16.4Four Leaf Clover on Apple iOS 16.4Heavy Equals Sign on Apple iOS 16.4Smiling Face with Heart-Eyes on Apple iOS 16.4

My student dug up the fairly esoteric Kapow and applied it to Clover, and has fantastic preliminary data. The use of Kapow is really not widespread at all, and definitely not its use on Clover or anything Clover-adjacent.

Now, that student recently presented their dissertation prospectus. The collaborator from above was on the committee. The collaborator really really liked the use of Kapow, of which he’d never heard before.

He asked immediately after the prospectus defense that I send him the slides so he can go on and apply Kapow on his problem of Onion, which he’d unsuccessfully been trying to address using Triangle.

To summarize, colleague has done this

Red Triangle Pointed Up on Apple iOS 16.4Plus on Apple iOS 16.4Onion on Apple iOS 16.4Heavy Equals Sign on Apple iOS 16.4Slightly Frowning Face on Apple iOS 16.4

and now wants me to hand over my Kapow stuff so he can try this:

Collision on Apple iOS 16.4Plus on Apple iOS 16.4Onion on Apple iOS 16.4

There was no offer of collaboration or anything. He basically asked that I give him info on my unpublished, very preliminary work that can potentially be a medium-to-big deal, so he can use it on the problem of interest to him. Presumably, this will be done with none of our participation and with no attribution to us.

I was pretty shocked. This is not something he heard at a conference. This is extremely preliminary data that he only had access to through the educational mission of the department. I would never ever ask someone what he asked me.

So at first I ignored him, hoping he would take a hint. No such luck. He accosted me before a faculty meeting, and I had to say no, with other colleagues sitting around and presumably listening in. I said this was preliminary data and not suitable for sharing. He said he “just” wanted the slides because Kapow would work so great on his Onion problem, it would be sooo great, and don’t I think that, too? I said yes, sure, it would, but it’s not for sharing right now. I said I could send him some references or else we could collaborate, but I would not just hand over my stuff. To this he was shocked and dismayed, like incredulous at what I was even implying — that he would scoop us. The thing is he might, for all I know. Right now Kapow+Clover is something no one is expecting, especially because Kapow is pretty obscure. Once the first application papers of Kapow come out, the cat’s out of the bag. I want my group and not my colleague’s to be the ones to release the cat, since it’s our damn cat.

I’m still reeling. The colleague acts like I’m the crazy one for not wanting to share. I am not not sharing. We are not on the same grant. I don’t actually have an obligation to make his life that much easier at a detriment to myself. He does seem a bit desperate, but given that my group has applied Triangle to Clover and gotten fine even if not great results, I am pretty sure he can apply Triangle to Onion and get results that are more than fine, so the issue is likely with the student working on the problem (I know said student) rather than with the actual technique. The colleague and his student could totally get what they need from Triangle because his Onion problem is fairly close to Apple. Kapow might be overkill for what they need, anyway.

I feel so disappointed. The colleague is a collaborator, someone who I counted on being by my side. But I guess there are always limits to loyalty, and the limits appear to be very self-serving.

What say you, blogosphere? Am I imagining things? Or is this clear overreach? 


  1. No, you are not imagining things and you have every right to be furious. This is a classic case of entitled male who is unable or unwilling to take no for an answer. (I always feel that, when we talk about sexual consent and how poor rates of prosecution/conviction for sexual assault are, we miss the obvious: we don’t teach men soon enough that no means no in *all* contexts, and we don’t teach women soon enough i.e. when they are little girls that they should be able to say no and expect to be taken seriously.)

    To get back to your context: this is appalling. This is someone expecting to free ride on your labour and that of your grad student. Also, what does it do to your student’s prospects if their research gets nabbed at this early stage? Wouldn’t any good supervisor want to protect their student? But beyond that, there is a wider context of gender politics and power plays that shouldn’t be surprising but is depressing nonetheless. Solidarity. Guard Kapow with your life until you can launch the research yourselves and cut ties with this guy – it doesn’t seem like there is enough in for you to be worth it.

  2. I’m in a totally different field – but is this when a pre-print could get you and your student established in using this method?

  3. That’s terrible. You aren’t overreacting. If he wants to use the method, he should offer co-authorship…..?

  4. I mean… you offered to collaborate, and he said no? That’s the kicker for me! He wants your technique, he can darn well collaborate with you (or wait for it to be public if he doesn’t want to collaborate… but why wouldn’t he?).

    Also, this is a student project. In no world should a thesis committee member be considering scooping a student project.

    Yeah, sounds like you are NTA here.

  5. Quoting Lyra: “I mean… you offered to collaborate, and he said no? That’s the kicker for me!”

    This was my reaction too. Sharing references (which you offered), fine, that’s a reasonable expectation. If he wants more help than that, he can collaborate and share authorship on any resulting papers, giving credit to the student, too.

  6. I’m on team clear overreach.

    Take this with a grain of ‘I’m not a professor,’ but if I were him and I wanted Kapow, I would come to you with the offer of some money to facilitate us collaborating on this together.

  7. I agree with everyone above…and if it makes it easier to keep saying no then think of it as defending your student from a potential predator.

  8. I don’t understand why he doesn’t ask you if you and your student could apply Kapow to his Onion – I mean isn’t that the way it is supposed to work? You have just shown something that could be a nice solution to his problem – Surely he should say that’s great! can you solve Onion for me? and if you dont find Onion interesting, then you tell him no – end of story…, of course you don’t give him your technique… but if you find it interesting, then you tell him yes.. after you have finished clover, and if he is in a rush he needs to find funding for an extra person to work with you… I am an experimentalist and it would be like having just built up a setup to do a cool experiment and someone coming round and saying – that is just the setup I need! and since we are in the same university – let me use it to do my experiment on!… the answer is clearly F+++ no (unless I get authorship and am interested in what you want to do and want to work with you…) (sorry – I am really just a blog lurker, but I couldn’t avoid commenting – just finished wasting an hour filling in a questionnaire about how to improve diversity in my university -even though I don’t think any of it will change anything… all we can do is to fight our knee-jerk niceness to avoid being trampled on…)

  9. I agree with everyone above. Your student & you find something new, and now he’s all “you’ve made the tools but now step aside, little lady, to let the Real Scientist scoop you & claim his rightful glory.” You offered to collaborate, but no, it’s solo glory or nothing for him. Nuts to that!

  10. I’ll be my paranoid self here and go further than others, in that if he’s acting “a little desperate” and that entitled, he could be somewhat dangerous in an academic sense. Normally “nice” people who are pleasant and ok to work with, when thwarted in this way, can turn really underhanded, in my experience. I have experienced this and it’s been quite unpleasant and certainly had detrimental effects on my career.

    Good luck.

  11. I would like to echo all the other commentators that you are not overreacting.

    I can actually see myself behaving the way your collaborator did, up to a point, out of cluelessness and self-delusion that I was doing it for science, when I was much younger. (I agree that turning down your offer to collaborate crosses the line into inappropriateness, and I don’t think I would have done that). I think a firm no would be completely in order. If I was really really clueless I would benefit from an explanation of why, but he is definitely not owed it.

  12. Yes, you’re definitely not over-reacting. You should be direct and tell him that either you two collaborate, or he can read the paper when everybody else does.

  13. Late to the party, but I think that you really need to protect your student here (as others have noted).

    This feels like a case of Communism versus Solitariness. In 1942, Robert Merton described norms that he felt all researchers would agree with. One was Communism – “Secrecy is the antithesis of this norm; full and open communication its enactment”.

    In 1974, Ian Mitroff responded with counter-norms to each of those norms. He countered Communism with Solitariness – ” Property rights are expanded to include protective control over the disposition of one’s discoveries; secrecy thus becomes a necessary moral act.”

    I think Mitroff is right – there are times when a researcher needs to assert the right to protect what they know. This is one of those times.

    If you are interested, the relevant papers are:

    Merton, Robert King. “A Note on Science and Democracy.” Journal of Legal and Political Sociology 1, no. 1 and 2 (1942): 115–26. https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.journals/jolegpo1&i=115.

    Mitroff, Ian I. “Norms and Counter-Norms in a Select Group of the Apollo Moon Scientists: A Case Study of the Ambivalence of Scientists.” American Sociological Review 39, no. 4 (1974): 579–95. https://doi.org/10.2307/2094423.

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