The role of supervisors is one of our priority topics in 2023.
Supervisors can act as important role models of research ethics and research integrity (RE/RI) in research environments. They have a specific responsibility for supervising and training PhD-candidates and students. RE/RI must be part of the training. Therefore, supervisors themselves must have sufficient and up-to-date knowledge on these topics. Here are important resources that apply to (1) Challenges concerning RE/RI in the supervisor relationship; and (2) Supervisor's responsibility for training in RE/RI.
The overall responsibility for RE/RI lies with the institutions. This overview is meant for supervisors and institutions, but also for students. The National research ethics committees (NREC) have produced a separate guide for the institutions' work with RE/RI (Veileder om institusjonenes ansvar for forskningsetikk - English translation pending).
There are many questions and dilemmas that can arise in the supervisor relationship. These are some of the topics that we find most relevant. At the same time, it is important to emphasize that all RE/RI challenges can arise with the supervisor role.
The relationship between supervisor and PhD candidate / student is characterized by asymmetry in power. Supervisors often have a position and expertise that PhD candidates / students want to draw on in their work. The asymmetry also means that the supervisor has a different authority than the PhD candidate / student. However, ethical competence does not necessarily follow power. PhD candidates / students may be more open about addressing RE/RI challenges and they may also have more expertise in the area.
Collegiality and respect are norms that apply in all research communities. The National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities (NESH) states in its guidelines:
«The research community must promote a collegial environment promoting high-quality research in line with recognised scientific and ethical principles.»
Supervisors are given a specific responsibility for ensuring that students and PhD-candidates are included in professional communities and gain knowledge of RE/RI.
NESH's guidelines also state that the parties must show mutual respect:
«Supervisors and students/PhD candidates must treat each other with respect. Supervisors should not misuse their position to their own advantage. This applies in both academic and personal matters.»
A highly relevant challenge in this context is what constitutes legitimate co-authorship.
There are some slight differences in the criteria that apply to legitimate authorship across subject areas, for the NENT area ICMJE's criteria apply, while NESH has its own criteria. In any case, it is not sufficient to contribute with supervision alone in order to be listed as a co-author. If the supervisor wishes to make use of ideas, data and results that the PhD candidate / student has collected, the PhD candidate /student should be given the opportunity to contribute so that other criteria for authorship are met.
Regulations for doctoral degrees at the individual institutions specify similar criteria for co-authorship as the national guidelines.
In case 2020/176, the National Committee for Research Ethics in Science and Technology (NENT) gives principled advice on, among other things, co-authorship on the basis of a specific case. The committee writes:
«NENT encourages clarification of questions related to co-authorship when research projects start. (...) The project manager ) has a responsibility and a central role in this. Supervisors have a special responsibility for ensuring that PhD-candidates are looked after in, and are familiar with, agreements relating to publication. The research institutions have a responsibility to facilitate for such agreements when their researchers join collaborative projects.
However, projects develop along the way, and it may therefore be necessary to adjust the list of authors. As far as possible, this should be resolved among the authors, but disputes may arise that they are unable to resolve. The research institutions in Norway have different arrangements for dealing with conflicts about co-authorship.»
The Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity has made useful and detailed recommendations for agreeing on authorship in research publications.
Plagiarism is traditionally regarded as copying/theft of textual material but can also concern anything from copying source references to theft of ideas (see, for example, NESH, guideline 10). The institutions should have clear guidelines for handling cases of alleged misconduct, such as plagiarism. These should routinely be made known to both supervisors and PhD-candidates / students.
The supervisor is responsible for guiding the PhD-candidate / student in matters related to good scientific practice, which involves the correct use of and reference to sources.
3. Ownership of data and materials
Clear agreements, such as a supervisor contract, can be used to clarify questions related to ownership of data and material.
NENT states in case 2020/176 (non-official translation):
«The main rule is that research results must be made available. The sharing of data is a prerequisite for quality assurance and further development of knowledge. In terms of research ethics, making data available is usually linked to accountability and verifiability. (…)
During a project, there may be legitimate reasons not to share data with researchers outside the research group. It is common for those who process research data to have the first right to use them. Commercial considerations can also come into play. However, all co-authors in a collaborative project should be given access to data that forms the basis of a publication, so that they can safeguard their interests as co-authors.
From a legal point of view, it can be challenging within academia to assess whether data sets are covered by rights, and who possibly holds these rights. (…) However, it is important to distinguish between the legal and copyright rules and the research ethics guidelines. Research ethics guidelines for plagiarism, authorship, and access to and sharing of data apply regardless of who legally has rights or can be defined as the originator.
As with co-authorship, agreements should be made to clarify expectations for data processing, data access, analysis, and interpretation at the start of collaborative projects. Here, too, it is important to be open to changes during the project. It is now common for research institutions and funders of research to demand that projects have a data management plan.»
NENTs statement also gives suggestions on to resolve professional disagreements in a project group through open discussions in journals, and the committee emphasizes the institutions' overall responsibility.
4. Personal integrity
When leaders in the national research committees and commissions discussed the role of supervisor during the 2023 annual conference, several stated that the relational aspect is perhaps the most demanding, and providing training for this can be difficult. But it is possible to prepare by thinking through what kind of situations you can end up in as a supervisor and how they can be solved, suggested one of the leaders. Another said that «one must dare to know the candidates well enough to know what they can tolerate, and at the same time be able to prioritize what is most important in a guidance session».
In an IPSOS survey from 2019 initiated by the University of Agder, the University of Oslo and the Oslo Academy of the Arts, it appears that research fellows are overrepresented in terms of sexual harassment in work relationships in the past year and strongly overrepresented among those who report sexual abuse in work relationships in the past year (N=7).
The NESH guidelines state (guideline 5):
«A supervisory relationship may involve both academic and private relations, which can result in conflicts of roles and interests when evaluating the work of the student/PhD candidate or in the research community more generally. If the relationship between a supervisor or PhD student becomes too close, for instance, of an intimate, sexual, or therapeutic nature, the supervisory relation must cease. Institutions have a particular responsibility to prevent students/PhD candidates from suffering any damage if a supervisory relation ceases.»
A number of foreign universities, including in the USA and England, have introduced bans on intimate relationships between teachers and students. See for example: https://www.bbc.com/news/education-64662612
Supervisor's responsibility for training in research ethics
Supervisors have a responsibility for research ethics training, according to national guidelines:
«Lecturers, supervisors, and project leaders have a particular responsibility for including students and PhD candidates into the scientific community and for introducing them to research ethics.» (NESH, guideline 2)
In the preparatory work for the Research Ethics Act, it is stated that (non-official translation):
«The research institutions must work actively and continuously to establish an ethical research culture and practice, which, among other things, sets requirements for (...) [t]raining - of everyone involved in research, including students. Supervisors have a particularly important role.» (Prop. 158 L (2015–2016), p. 31).
Correspondingly, the EU framework The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity from All European Academies (ALLEA) point 2.2 Training, education and guidance states:
«Senior researchers, research leaders, and supervisors mentor their team members, lead by example, and offer specific guidance and training to properly develop and structure their research activities.»
Universities Norway (UiR) have given Recommended Guidelines for the Doctor of Philosophy Degree (PhD). The latest revision in Norwegian was in 2018. These state that the candidate should receive guidance on ethical issues related to the doctoral work.
According to the Research Ethics Act, the institutions are responsible for ensuring that supervisors also receive adequate training in RE/RI. In addition to guidelines and guides, statements and decisions, the The Research Ethics Library has articles and case proposals that can be used in training.
The European Virt2ue project has also developed a «Train the trainers» program with a range of resources for those teaching RE/RI. The starting point is The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity.
- training should cover RE/RI broadly and be based on subject-specific research ethics guidelines.
- research ethical challenges should be discussed in guidance sessions and otherwise in the professional communities.
- relevant cases should be used in training at all levels.
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