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Saturday, June 23, 2007


I've been thinking a lot lately about the nature of scientific collaborations; about what makes them work, or not work, and about the personal components that can make or break a partnership. Scientists are, by and large, a little weak on interpersonal skills (to be kind). This last week has shown me that the current collaboration isn't going to work. I am frustrated beyond words by the inability of one member (another PI) to recognize the importance (or even validity) of work outside his narrow field, and infuriated by the inherent selfishness shown by the fact that his only question is always a variation of "what's in it for me?" (and his apparent belief that I work for him) -- to the extent that I am now having trouble being polite. As much as I wanted this to work, I'm having to accept that it's time to cut my losses and get out. As much as we want everything to be about the work, about the science alone, the truth is that sometimes it can't be.

I think that we are also a more judgmental community as a whole. If a particular PI doesn't work to our standards, everything they do becomes questionable. This is an essential component to science, because one's work must be above reproach at all times -- we function on integrity, and when someone violates that, they undermine the entire community. This is why infractions are treated so severely. But there are more mild infractions, those of being a little sloppy, and being a little unclear, or being a little too focused. We respond to those in various ways, and as time goes by I find that I am less and less forgiving of them; I feel that such infractions make it harder for the rest of the community, and hamper forward progress. I don't want my name affiliated with such work.

There is also a gendered component. I find that I am far less selfish in my approach to our projects than are my male collaborators, and that I am the one most likely to have done a thorough literature search, and to be most careful about ensuring that the work of other groups is fairly discussed and cited. I have noticed this in discussions with broader groups, too, with other women scientists, who say that they have noticed the same thing.

This might seem petty, but it is important. Our work, indeed, the work of all scientists in the modern age, is founded on the work of others, and it is imperative that we acknowledge that. When an author fails to do so they misrepresent their own work, and that, to me, is a violation of academic integrity. I don't need to work with people who do things like that, and I find that if they show signs of this, they will have other practices I find questionable also. Maybe it's because science is the closest thing I have to religion, but I find it blasphemous.

On the plus side, I have gotten some benefits out of the collaboration, including access to some phenomenal resources, and introduction to some other early-career scientists with whom I continue to develop relationships.

Location: Currently, Berkeley, United States

I'm an academic scientist who is both abroad and a broad. I am on the road so often that I have a house solely so that my cats will have somewhere to live.

Okay, fine. If you really really want to, and don't care how long it is between mail checks, you can send email to ascientistabroad  {a}gmail{dot}com

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