Saturday, November 10, 2007

Long Story (and I look bad)

I’ve been a bit lost for what to write lately - nothing all that interesting is happening. My book hit a wall just above 24,000 words - in the middle of a chapter, no less - and I suddenly don’t know where I’m going with it. I’m stalled on the in-progress paper too. I have figures and text and am waiting for co-authors to start ripping it apart and adding to their sections. The scope of the study is huge - there are many techniques that sort of fit together. The patient population is small, but I think it’s written in a way that makes the conclusions clear. Which means that the stack of papers that Sprout has been stuffing under my loveseat with his stripey paws (he likes to bury stuff) should be taken to the kitchen table where I could start drafting some text for the next paper. Or I could work on my interview presentation.

But I thought of a topic for a blog post, so I can instead spend some time telling a story. I’ll start - as I like to do - with something only vaguely connected. Some of you may recall - if you’ve read me a long, long time - that I was deeply infatuated with a guy named Gabe in college. Gabe was quirky and kind and his girlfriend (who I thought was rather boring and mean) was a resident adviser in another dorm. She told Gabe that one of her girls was terribly upset because everyone on the floor was talking about how she didn’t wash her hands after she used the bathroom. Gabe was flabbergasted that anyone would notice, let alone share this piece of information with roommates or friends.

“She doesn’t wash her hands?” I asked, wrinkling my much younger nose. “Everyone on my floor washes their hands.”

“Are you sure?” He asked.

“Pretty sure.” I replied. “I would have heard about it if someone didn’t.” At this he stopped walking and because I did everything I could to make him like me, I paused too.

“So if you were in the bathroom brushing your teeth and a girl down the hall came out of a stall and walked back to her room without washing her hands, you’d tell everyone?” I shrugged. “If I picked my nose in front of you right now, would you tell anyone?”

“I’d really rather you didn’t.” I offered and he smiled. Encouraged, I offered that girls talk. And we’re often less than charitable. “Would I say anything? I don’t know - I kind of hope not judging from how you’re looking at me as if I’m evil incarnate. But maybe. The girl should just wash her hands.”

His point was that other girls should just shut up and be nice. But my solution is much more reasonable. The rule is that you don’t give people ammunition. Even now, I have this awful feeling in my stomach at the thought that someone could talk about me. There were a whole lot of people who came to read about a week ago. They all came from the same basket-related message board and it made me ill wondering what they were saying about me in the private section I couldn’t see. I did get a very sweet email from one of them, but the ingrained discomfort that someone is openly irked at something I’ve done or said or written is intense.

I didn’t really think about it overly much until I winced at an email I was going to send this morning. It was catty and mean and there was really no reason it should have been. So let me tell you about Anti-Friend, which is a much kinder name than has been given to her over email.

To review, let’s clarify roles. Carrie is my friend from grad school and is a faculty member at Institution Far Away (IFA). Jane is a post-doc at IFA - we like her. Anti-Friend was a hired assistant at IFA. She was not in a graduate program, though she left IFA to join one this Fall. I met Jane and Anti-Friend at a conference. Loved Jane, wasn’t impressed with Anti-Friend. She was very self important and talked over everyone. She shot down ideas quickly and spoke as though she had the highest authority, leaving me looking across a breakfast table with raised eyebrows at Carrie.

The project is an application of an earlier, more technical finding. Anti-Friend helped with the data analysis for the first paper and seems to feel that anything even vaguely related to that should be credited to her. Which I find odd, frankly, since she did what she was told and had no control over the project at all. But I digress. Carrie is running this application-based thing and asked Jane to do part A. Anti-Friend took some time off to have a baby and wasn’t being quick to return to Applied Project. So in the interest of time, Carrie asked me to do part B. Which I tried and failed.

At that point, Anti-Friend was settled in her new graduate lab and had already complained about how everyone was screwing up things she would have done properly. Since Carrie had planned to list her as an author anyway, she said she’d have her take over part B. That happened with my blessing and I hadn’t thought much more about it.

Carrie wrote to me last week and said that she was done with Anti-Friend. She was irritated and asked if I’d take over part B again. I sighed because I’ve already screwed it up once, but I do have more experience with some of the methods since I tried it months ago. So I could start over and figure out what went wrong. I agreed and said I’d get to it as soon as possible. Carrie then forwarded me an email from Anti-Friend that said she was in no hurry to complete the analysis since the paper could wait. It wasn’t that important, she said, so she’d deal with it at her convenience. Plus, it wasn’t her fault that we were running so late.

I blinked at the tone the first year grad student took with a faculty member and said I’d have been annoyed too. Jane wrote to explain what Anti-Friend thought was wrong and I raised an eyebrow again. I simply don’t believe she’s right. But I was willing to try it on a couple of subject datasets and see. Jane was assigned the role of mediator so that Carrie and I didn’t communicate directly with Anti-Friend. It was at that point that Carrie and Jane started referring to her as World’s Biggest Whore* and I adopted their WBW naming system. (Evil incarnate - I know.)

In the meantime, Anti-Friend sent another note to Carrie in order to make completely clear that she expected to be second author on the paper. Now, I don’t mind authorship requests - I even applaud people who are a bit aggressive when they feel they might get screwed over. But in this instance, her demands struck me as ridiculous. First, Jane has done a ton of work on part A. She also organized all of part B that I then screwed up. So the idea in the beginning - since it is a paper about Technical Idea applied to part A and part B - was that Carrie would write it and take first author. The way workload fell out, it was clear that Jane should go second. Then whoever ends up finishing part B would take third and everyone else could get tossed on however.

Upon giving up part B to Anti-Friend, by the way, I expected to vacate the author list completely. Carrie insisted upon leaving me on, but I think that was more friendship than fairness. I did try and spent a ton of time on it, but I also failed. Regardless, if Anti-Friend does not plan to complete part B (and her email to me indicating that I would do the heavy lifting indicated she did not), there was no way in hell she should have been any higher than fourth. Her snippy demands just pissed everyone off.

Now the mature action for me would have been to stay out of it. Which I officially did - I sent a single email to Anti-Friend (in which I was less than friendly, but managed to be civil) that indicated I was eager to see how she fixed my problems (since she had said the problems were clear to her) and looked forward to getting the data soon so we could wrap this up. But I did participate in the emails that zipped between Carrie, Jane and myself. I reiterated that I didn’t like her when I met her. I gasped with indignation when Anti-Friend scolded Carrie for not doing a better job. I narrowed my eyes when she tried to steal the second author spot from Jane. And I smiled triumphantly when Carrie informed me that I’d be listed as third author if for no other reason than to thwart Anti-Friend and put her in her place.

Once past my annoyance, I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable. Kind of like the gaggle of girls whispering about the icky one who doesn’t wash her hands. It’s unnecessary - we’re all busy, smart women who are actually quite kind. We’ve all done volunteer projects and donate to charity. All three of us have adopted dogs from the shelter! I don’t know if I can blame behavior learned in junior high or intense stress at work that begs for a gossipy release or sharing secrets and venting to reinforce a sincere friendship. All in all, I’m not feeling very good about the whole thing.

* When I was driving Elle and Tom around downtown, I called someone a whore when he took too long to turn.

“That’s funny.” Tom chuckled. “You think people pay him for sex.”

“No.” I said. “It’s just a word of Carrie’s I picked up. It’s a mild insult - like idiot or moron. Nothing more.” But perhaps I should feel badly about that too.


ppb said...

Oh, totally BTDT, and it is such a squicky feeling!

H said...

It all seems odd to me. I have seen and been part of first authorship squables. They were settled by who really did the most work and wrote the most (and that has resulted in at least two cases I know of with co-first authors, my name being on one). But NEVER have I seen or heard squabbles that were about middle places, not any reference to whether individual authors were liked or not. Have I been lucky? Is it because my field is not tied to medicine and therefor has less of the hierarchical stuff that medicine is rife with? Or maybe I am unobservant and/or naive (which I have been called before). Anyhow, sounds icky, my condolences.

post-doc said...

Squicky, yes.

It is icky, and I'm unsure as to the explanation for it. My guess is that it's more me than the medical field, but I'm not really sure. We squabbled over author order a tremendous amount in my graduate group so I'm sort of trained to get all tense and icky about it. I suppose it is an ego thing - the order should reflect importance (in my mind) so it's the official way to note who was most valuable? I am glad it's not part of your academic experience though - I'm a bit jealous, but pleased you don't engage in such behavior.

Post a Comment