Friday, September 18, 2015

Big tips and the balance of justice


Over 20 years ago I was a graduate student in a high-pressure (both meanings) research group. I had a mediocre-quality data set and my advisor was demanding that I produce the paper. The work was a collaborative effort with a colleague whose student was to measure one property, I was to measure another, and we would combine the measurements and analysis in a single paper. I made my measurements, obtained their measurements (but only after I completed my analysis—I remember the collaborator PI being very strict about this), combined them, and wrote a draft, exchanging drafts and comments multiple times with the collaborator PI and his student. I was under continual harassment from my advisor “submit the paper! submit the paper!” So I did, to a top-flight journal. Nothing for months. Then, about 2 months later, I got reviews back—pretty good reviews. Reviews that suggested it might be published in top-flight journal. My advisor was happy. I circulated the reviews to our collaborators and set to work on a revision.

Two days later I get an email (or was it a call? Or a letter? I don’t remember how we used to communicate…) from the editor of the journal saying that the manuscript was withdrawn by one of the co-authors. It was bad. The collaborator PI had told the editor that the manuscript was submitted without his being notified and pulled it. It is true I had submitted the paper without his explicit “OK to submit”. I had a long talk with the collaborator PI and I listened to his reasons for withdrawing the manuscript. There were more and I remember them. Bottom line--when he decided that his student’s part was more interesting than ours (perhaps justified, see citation details below) then it ceased to be a collaboration. In his head.

Here was the fallout:
Plenty of short-term anger to go around, and some long-term hard feelings as well.
There were two papers in the end in society journals—one w/collaborator’s grad student as 1st author (cited 29 times since then) and the other with me as first author (cited 12 times).

Careers are long, so over the past several years I find myself working with the collaborator PI. He’s the president of an NSF-sponsored research consortium and I have participated, sat on committees, chaired committees, and now I’m chair of the executive committee. So now we spend a lot of time working closely together. Another reminder to myself to never burn bridges and perhaps instead perform occasional structural maintenance on some of the more decrepit ones.

But there was a part of me that was always sore about our history, and maybe it got a little bit in the way of the service-related work we had to do together.

Recently I was out for dinner and cocktails with collaborator PI (and another colleague), and we had a good talk about our service work and ideas, and we even laughed together, and then the time came to split the check down the middle (other colleague gave us cash.). We tossed in our credit cards, and then the tabs came back, and collaborator PI passes mine to sign. I peeked at his totals--he is a really meager tipper. So I compensated by doubling the tip on my tab.

Later, as I was sorting through receipts, I realized that he had mixed up the tabs, and so I left the big tip on his credit card, not mine.

The amount of joy this event has given me is perhaps a little bit out of proportion with the actual event. I was laughing so hard when I told my son that he asked if I was high. But to me it feels like the scales of justice have been ever so slightly restored to proper balance. And no-one suffered.

It’s the little things that make me happy.

Here's a summary of the "teaching moments"
1.     Maintain your bridges. You might like to have them in the future.
2.     Do what you know is right, even under great external pressure to do otherwise.
3.     Get your co-authors' explicit “ok to submit” before submitting manuscripts.
4.     Leave big tips.

1 comment:

  1. wow i love t hat SO much... can i cut and paste it into my blog?? but give u credit, of course???
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