Texas Tech University
Scholarly Messenger
The Importance of Difficult Dialogues
By Marianne Evola, Ph.D.

When people think of “difficult dialogues” they probably think of conversations about sex or money. For example, I remember a job interview a few years ago that went very well. I was sure that I would be offered the position and was excited about the job. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized we had never addressed salary. It is funny that critical conversations are often the most difficult to initiate. Most people have similar stories, and many are amusing, but in other cases failure to initiate a difficult conversation can be devastating to one’s career. Specifically, failing to define issues of credit or responsibility in any type of collaborative research relationship and/or failing to redefine these issues as research progresses could potentially stall or even end your research career.

When I address a student group on Responsible Conduct of Research, I always include a slide or two on the importance of initiating difficult conversations early in any type of research relationship. I encourage students, both graduate and undergraduate, to initiate discussions on the credit and authorship practices of a lab or mentor and if possible, to get the defined practice in writing. Furthermore, I encourage them to initiate the conversation while interviewing for a research position. My hope is that even if students are too uncomfortable or intimidated to initiate this discussion during initial interviews, they will recognize the importance and initiate this discussion immediately when they realize they are intellectually contributing to a research project. Although I predominantly address students on these issues, I believe ALL collaborations would actually benefit from regular and candid assessment of credit and responsibility.

Below are a few arguments that favor initiating difficult conversations and rational on addressing difficult issues as early as possible:

  1. Learning to initiate difficult conversations is a valuable skill that will benefit a student’s career. This is a “business of science” skill which is critical for effectively progressing in your career but for which we are not prepared by our coursework. It is a skill that students need to practice. As undergraduate or graduate student work progresses, they need to recognize the importance of their contribution. Furthermore, to protect their time and intellectual effort they need to initiate conversations that allow them to assert their contribution and address their expectations of credit.
  2. Once a difficult conversation is initiated, the reaction of people involved in the discussion can reveal a lot about the dynamics of a research group and provide you with critical information for making a decision about whether to engage in a collaborative relationship with that group. On the surface, this statement seems to imply that critical conversations should be used to reveal a nefarious agenda of a potential collaborator. Although there are research groups with negative agendas, in a much more general sense the revelations provided by critical discussions permit you to assess an environment for attributes that will enable your research to thrive. There are many types of research groups, some are inclusive and cooperative, others exclusive and competitive, some are highly instructive and regimented, others lack structure and encourage free intellectual growth. Different people thrive under different environmental conditions. You want to actively choose collaborations and environments that will be productive for you and avoid those which will hinder your intellectual and career development. Critical conversations reveal the attributes and limitations of an environment so that you can make an informed decision as to whether a research environment will make an effective collaborator.
  3. It is harder to walk away from a collaborative relationship after you have invested a significant amount of time and effort to projects. It would be better to promptly identify a collaboration as nonfunctional so that you do not lose a great deal of time. Once a significant amount of work has been completed, you will be inclined to stick it out, but this may only lead to more time and effort invested in work for which you may not get credit. Unfortunately, like our parents taught us, avoiding a problem does not make the problem go away. Initiating difficult conversation early in a collaboration can prevent a loss of time and effort in one’s career. Loss of significant time/effort is an issue that is particularly germane to junior researchers who are working to develop a career. They can be trapped into sticking it out because to leave a position with little to show for their time could devastate their career. They need to be actively involved and encouraged to make an informed decision as to whether a particular collaboration would be beneficial to their career. A great collaboration could make their career, but a poor collaboration could kill it.
  4. As depth of information grows in a particular field, the focus of a research group narrows. This has led to an increased need for collaboration across disciplines. This need also increases the importance of engaging in difficult discussions on credit and responsibility because each group will have only a limited understanding of the time/labor demands of the notably different research of their collaborator. Furthermore, everyone has the propensity to believe that their contribution to a project is more important. After all, it was your recognition of that importance that led you to specialize in a particular discipline. Even if you respect the contribution of your collaborator, your limited understanding of their research in combination with a propensity to believe that your discipline is more important will bias your perception of who deserves credit when addressing issues such as authorship. Therefore, multi-disciplinary collaboration requires a lot of conversation, much of it awkward and challenging so that collaborators can develop an understanding of the demands and importance of the work of their research partners. For example, in a collaboration between a biochemist and a behaviorist, I guarantee that their perception of a manuscript will markedly differ as to whether it is a behavioral paper with a bit of biochemistry or a biochemistry paper with a bit of behavior. In complex situations such as this, it is critical that all parties address issues of responsibility and credit throughout the collaboration. Furthermore, if early negotiations reveal that partners do not recognize the importance of their collaborators, perhaps the relationship should be avoided.
  5. Different fields of research and sometimes different research groups within a discipline have markedly different practices of authorship. Each party will approach a collaboration with the assumption that their own authorship practices will dictate credit. Differences in authorship practice need to be addressed as soon as possible.
  6. Students are, at least initially, new to science and may not understand the relationship between responsibility and credit. In addition, the roles that students play in a lab setting may markedly differ. Some students may do a semester rotation as they are assessing whether a field of research fits their interest. They may assist on a project, may even follow instructions effectively, but their intellectual contribution may not warrant “authorship” but perhaps their good work does deserve “acknowledgement” in a manuscript. At the same time, there may be other students in the lab who have worked on a project for a long time. They own their project, are current on the literature and contribute to the intellectual evolution of the work. Their contribution clearly warrants “authorship” status. However, the inexperienced student may perceive their lab status as equal, since they are all students. Due to inexperience, they fail to see the difference in their current roles and contributions. Hence when the experienced student is awarded authorship on a manuscript, the inexperienced student may develop expectations that they will similarly be an author. Without initial and regular discussions on intellectual contribution and credit, a student may be disappointed or perhaps worse, discouraged from pursuing a career in research.
With the above rational regarding why it is so important to engage in critical conversations early and regularly in all research partnerships, it surprises me that this is not something that is embedded in the academic system. From my experience, scholars have little difficulty initiating and engaging in intellectual, or other, confrontation. Nor does the thought of making others squirm seem to impact assertive dialogue. However, it is interesting that with all the vivid discussion that I have witnessed, seldom, if ever, have I witnessed a formal discussion on how credit or authorship would be assigned in a particular scenario or what changing factors would alter current plans for assigning credit. So, if these discussions are so important and if academics are by nature and/or training assertive discussants, then why aren’t responsibility and credit immediately and regularly addressed in all research groups?
  1. It is presumptuous to discuss credit when there is not yet any data for which to take credit. The fact is, most proposed collaborations or pilot studies do not produce a useful or publishable outcome. When an idea is proposed, everyone is excited to play a bit to see if a project will produce useful data. Then when the project produces a glimpse of an effect, excitement follows. As a project becomes successful, more resources of time, labor and money are allocated to the project. At each point, roles and responsibility shift as the researchers involved get more or less excited with the data, personnel, especially students, come and go from the lab, yet there has never been a formal discussion of responsibility and credit. Eventually, memories fade and defining who contributed to different phases of the research becomes relative to each participant’s perception of reality. Our natural tendency to focus on the research sets the stage for confusion and conflict when the small but novel idea progresses to a successful and publishable data set. To maximize productivity and meet expectations, best practices would require the group to define responsibility and credit at the start of the project and redefine it as personnel come and go or as the project expands. Furthermore, following each negotiation, the agreement should be put in writing because memory of agreements also fades.
  2. Junior researchers often assume that responsibility and credit have been discussed on their behalf by trusted mentors and they do not perceive they’re in a position to engage in negotiations. Making this assumption can be a huge mistake. The career of junior scientists is at a critical junction and getting caught up in a quandary of contribution and or credit/authorship after spending months or years on data collection and analysis can stall or kill their career. Do not take a passive role during negotiations on collaboration and expect that the senior scientists will look out for your best interest. Difficult dialogues are difficult for everyone, so even senior scientists often work from the assumption that everything will work out in the end. Furthermore, senior scientists are often embarking on a collaboration with a trusted colleague and may not see the pertinence of such negotiations.
  3. Students, especially undergraduates, seldom enter a lab with an agenda for credit or authorship. They are generally interested in learning how to conduct research, learning a bit about the world of science and assessing the fit of a particular discipline. However, if they find that a field fits their interest and their work progresses to a successful project, they will naturally begin to take ownership of project responsibility and develop an expectation of credit. As a student’s role in a lab evolves, expectations of responsibility and credit should be regularly addressed.
  4. In academics, there is a historical idealization of the “Ivory Tower.” In this ideal world, it is the work that matters, not who gets credit. I’m not sure if this ideal ever really existed. There are numerous historical accounts of competing scientists and questionable research behavior due to that competition. However, the ideal does exist and sometimes we engage in practices that embody the ideal rather than the actual world of science. The reality is that research dollars and tenured faculty positions are highly competitive and to earn either you must get credit for your time and effort. Failure to define how your effort will translate to credit and authorship can kill your career.
  5. It is difficult and uncomfortable addressing and defining responsibility and credit while a new research relationship is developing. It is natural to engage in activities that are inspiring and fun, i.e., discussing new ideas and data, while avoiding activities that are awkward and difficult, i.e., defining responsibility and credit. However, regardless of how difficult it is to engage in these discussions at the start of a partnership, it is nowhere near as difficult as trying to address these issues when numerous persons have made significant contributions and have high expectations of credit/authorship. Especially if negotiations of credit were never addressed prior to manuscript preparation. Anger and bad feelings can stall a project moving through to the final phase of publishing and with this, the careers of junior researchers similarly stall or come to an end due to the conflict. It would have been far better to have addressed these issues when it was an awkward conversation between potential collaborators.
It is not the role of Texas Tech to define the research practices of individual labs nor is it the role of the university to determine the credit or authorship practices of any discipline, research group or mentor. The goal of this article is to encourage an atmosphere of discourse and negotiation that will hopefully translated into transparency of practices regarding credit. Out of respect for their intellectual efforts, students and junior researchers should be informed upfront how credit and authorship are distributed among contributors. Furthermore, from the perspective of productivity, all persons involved in a project should have their responsibilities defined and be aware of how meeting those responsibilities will translate into credit and/or authorship. These conversations/negotiations should be central to all research relationships, regardless of whether they are between trainees, i.e., undergrads, grads or postdocs, and a mentor or between collaborating colleagues. Ideally, the outcome of negotiations should be put in writing and presented to each person involved in a project. Furthermore, each time there is a change of research focus or personnel, agreements should be renegotiated and redefined. In absence of defined roles, there is too much room for intentional or unintentional neglect of accomplishments/contributions by the various parties involved in a project. Good work environments want to see everyone succeed, they want to fairly distribute credit and authorship so that the careers of all personnel advance.

Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.
Alice Young, associate vice president for research/research integrity, is a contributing author/editor.