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I am a graduate student (PhD) in a STEM program. A fellow lab mate of mine asked me to review a chapter (basically the background/history of their project) of their graduate thesis a couple months ago. It was during my finals, I had conference papers due, along with the pandemic shutting everything down, it was a crazy time. I informed this person I was really busy but I would try. They sent it to me (in pdf format) and I read through it and made some suggestions on content, ideas, and presentation. It was in rough shape, there was a lot of work to be done, but their main concern was if the content made sense and had good logic flow. I replied with my opinions. Fast forward to now, this person defended their thesis this week and passed.

Yesterday I received a very passive aggressive text message from this person that stated the following (mostly paraphrasing): "The only real critique I had on my thesis was that the chapter I sent you had typos. I went through this chapter again and found quite a few. In the future when someone asks you to review a chapter you need to carefully check and find typos because it's embarrassing to send a final thesis with a chapter filled with typos. Its disappointing when you rely on someone and they screw you I hope in the future you do a better job." The rest of the text chain did not go well.

Let me start off by admitting that I am able to see my fault in this. I could've (should've) done a more thorough job in editing. But my question is, is it really my responsibility to find typos? It's always been my view that you polish something as much as you can before sending it off to others. They sent it in a pdf which I can't edit (also no indication of spelling mistakes, and its so easy to gloss over mistakes), and I informed them I was super busy, both excuses, but still a little relevant. I also was dumbfounded that they didn't do a single edit after mine. I feel ultimately it is their graduate thesis and their responsibility for its contents. I feel I can't be blamed for this person literally not pressing the spell check button.

In hindsight I should've been more assertive with this person by saying I didn't have enough time to fully give myself to editing. This is a lesson I've learned. They are now removing me from their acknowledgements (I couldn't care less), but what I do care about are the things they are telling other people about me (ie I screwed them, I'm lazy, etc). I replied to their texts expressing my view that the typos are not my fault, and it quickly turned into a blow out where I just ended up apologizing and asking not to discuss it further.

What could I have done better? What should I do now? Am i justified in my opinions?

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    unless there is some system in academia that I am not aware of that causes you to be responsible for other peoples work, or your name was otherwise documented as a contributor. The only thing they deserve is a firm reply of 'Shove it'. – Whistler Jun 16 at 17:04
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    Now, that I've given you an answer, was this paid work? – thursdaysgeek Jun 16 at 17:22
  • @thursdaysgeek not at all! completely out of my own time – fractalflame Jun 16 at 17:24
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    Check out the cross post on Academia: academia.stackexchange.com/q/150600/72855 – Solar Mike Jun 16 at 17:46
  • @SolarMike thank you, I posted this in academia, where I think people have a better idea of the nuances of graduate work. I appreciate the response! – fractalflame Jun 16 at 17:51
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You say at the top that "but their main concern was if the content made sense and had good logic flow". If they had asked to point out typos, you would have probably asked for an editable copy as well, correct? You perhaps should have mentioned that there were still a lot of typos that needed to be cleaned up, but it's also understandable to think that their word processor would be all red because of them, so that was something they would clean up.

This isn't really work related, but more interpersonal. But often, when someone is told they did something wrong, they try to find a way to put the blame elsewhere. This time, he was pushing it on you, rather than taking responsibility for it himself. That's not yours to fix. Nor to take any of the blame for. You were asked to do a specific task, you did it, and unless you were being paid to do a job and that part of the statement of work, you did what was appropriate.

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    Thank you. I think I should've communicated clearly what editing was performed (concepts look good, didn't scan for typos). – fractalflame Jun 16 at 17:55
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    @fractalflame - sure. But it was also reasonable to assume that he cared about the typos and planned on fixing them. Live and learn, I guess. – thursdaysgeek Jun 16 at 22:16
  • @thursdaysgeek it infact is not. And on top of that, anyone who sends a text off to be fixed, but simply copy and pastes what was given in return without reading it, then prints and publishes, is doomed to the repercussions of not proof reading it that one last time. This is scapegoating and nothing more. – morbo Jun 19 at 6:44
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It is clear that they are going out of their way to be rude to you, and that they have very little justification for doing so. They also removed you from the acknowledgements, which is an (albeit weak) attempt to damage your professional credibility.

In those circumstances you have three options:

  1. Be a better person. This is trickier than it sounds, and not always without risk, but is usually the best option.
  2. Get revenge now.
  3. Get revenge in the future.

The main problem with the revenge option is that it is usually very hard to find a response which is both proportionate and impactful. Revenge also has quite a bit of potential to backfire.

In this case a proportionate response might be to submit a complaint that you have been wrongfully removed from the acknowledgements.... but it isn't clear (to me) whether such a complaint would be considered appropriate (and thus impactful) by your supervisor or institution. Submitting an inappropriate complaint would be more likely to damage your career than your colleagues.

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  • Why even bring up revenge? That's almost never an appropriate course of action in the workplace. – jakebeal Jun 19 at 1:09
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Bottom Line

In the absence of clearly communicated expectations, when somebody asks you to review something, it's strange for you to assume that copyediting was off the table if you didn't say so. You were busy and life is chaotic, which is fair, but those are just excuses.

On the other side of the coin, it was a huge mistake for this person to submit their work having only had one person review any section of it. Ultimately, of course, people are responsible for their own work.

What could I have done better?

If you only had time to review for content and not copyedit, you should have said so. Really, that's all there is to it.

What should I do now?

Off topic for this stack, as it's an interpersonal question now. Seems like you're not friends with this person any more, so what to do now depends mostly on how you feel about that. You've already apparently apologized, so that's that.

I will say that you shouldn't feel like you have to litigate this with common friends, nor should you assume they'll think less of you. If it comes up I'd say "we had a miscommunication" and leave it at that.

Am i justified in my opinions?

That opinion being that you've done nothing wrong? No. As far as I can tell, somebody asked you to do something (review written material to get it ready for submission) you agreed to do it, and you didn't do it. Whatever your opinion about what they "should" have provided you with if expecting certain types of assistance, it doesn't appear that any of that was ever discussed.

Setting aside how stupid it is to submit work under your own name without doing a final review of it yourself, it appears based on your description that you did let this person down.

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  • Looking at your post history, I can see multiple questions with spelling mistakes where you didn't let the poster know about them. Tsk tsk... letting people down. I think the reason I don't see you pointing out spelling mistakes is because you appreciate the scope of the question, and realise that going outside of the scope of the original request (OP was not asked to spell check) can often be an annoyance. – N.J.Dawson Jun 19 at 8:18
  • "OP was not asked to spell check" you assert without evidence. The reason you don't see me "pointing out" spelling mistakes on Stack Exchange is that it would be ridiculous to point out mistakes on a platform that allows community editing. Obviously. – Alex M Jun 20 at 23:35
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There are several clues as to why this person behaved in the way he/she did. First I notice you said it was a very chaotic time and you did not have any time to do X, Y, and Z. So you were very busy. Yet, it sounds like this thesis is very important and you asked someone to review it.

In my opinion, this person has a right to be upset. You made it well known ahead of time that you do not value his/her opinion because you said it was a very busy time. On top of that, the person in reverse also sent you a copy of their thesis that you cannot edit. You also claimed that you were very busy and did not really have time to do much of anything. You can absolutely modify a pdf with notes and annotations.

I'm not sure, but in the future I recommend simply putting time aside for something critical, especially if you have prior obligations. For example, if someone invites you to a dinner, tell them, "Sorry, I have to stay home and proof read my thesis and I have a peer review of another person." Or whatever other functions that may come up. Since you agreed to review his/her thesis, and on top of that, he agreed to set time aside to review yours, that would mean you need to set time aside and honor this commitment.

Otherwise break it off ASAP. Tell the other party you're sorry but you can't review his/her paper and in vice versa, you are not expecting them to review yours.

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    Sorry your response doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I didn't ask anyone to review a thesis...they asked me. – fractalflame Jun 16 at 17:30
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    I think you got it backwards. This answer would be good for the thesis writer. The OP here was the person asked to read it. The OP is the “this person” in the beginning of your second PP. – Damila Jun 16 at 17:39

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