Responsible supervision

From The Embassy of Good Science

Responsible supervision

What is this about?

Research ethics and integrity do not just comprise of what researchers do research-wise. An additional duty of many researchers beyond the PhD level is the supervision of junior researchers and PhD candidates. Besides responsible conduct of research, it is thought that one should also supervise others responsibly. This page sums up the existing resources, practices and ideas about responsible supervision.

Why is this important?

Academic research has a long tradition of master-apprentice relationships, where the apprentice (here: junior researcher) learns the fine skills of the trade (here: research) through the extensive supervision of a master (here: senior researcher). The more one grows in an academic career, the more likely a researcher is to supervise junior researchers (often PhD candidates).

Responsible supervision involves two main things. On the one hand, the supervisor should model responsible research, so that junior researchers are naturally socialized into responsible research practices. This could involve a variety of things: from assuring that the junior researcher is involved in good data management from the start of the project, to an open and timely conversation about (co-) authorship.

On the other hand, responsible supervision involves creating a safe learning climate for junior researchers to learn. The idea here is that if the learning climate is not safe, junior researchers may lack the space and confidence to share their concerns about the interpretation of the data, the planning of a particular research project, or the limitations of their capacity. Hence, if no safe professional relationship exists, certain doubts, concerns or limitations may remain under the radar, ultimately slowing down academic research.

For whom is this important?

What are the best practices?

There is increased recognition that lecturing supervisors about responsible supervision may not be the most useful approach. Below are some innovative examples that integrate responsible research with responsible supervision. This list is far from comprehensive, but should serve as a starting point for exploration of the topic.

First, Whitbeck described a group mentoring approach that was intended to support the discussion of research integrity in supervision. [1]Besides, the research group was assisted in grasping the complexity of situations they may encounter that challenge the integrity of their research.

Second, Kalichman & Plemmons have developed a workshop curriculum for supervisors.[2] This workshop curriculum is explicitly designed to convey responsible research in the actual research environment, as opposed to a classroom environment that is separated from the lab.

Thirdly, Anne Walsh and Mark Hooper from Queensland University of Technology office of Research Ethics and Integrity are developing a fully online training module that challenges supervisors to reflect on their own supervision and formulate concrete goals to improve their supervision skills, explicitly connected to responsible research.[3] Their full training will be released late 2019.

Finally, as part of the Academic Research Climate in Amsterdam project, an interactive training called Superb Supervision was developed. The training continuously alternates responsible research and soft skill development and participants meet in between to discuss their own dilemmas, see here.

The Erasmus Dilemma game lists a variety of example dilemmas from the perspective of the junior researcher as well as from the senior researcher. These example dilemmas may serve as useful conversation starters when discussing responsible supervision.

Other information

  1. Whitebeck C. Group mentoring to foster the responsible conduct of research. Sci Eng Ethics. 2001;7(4):541–58.
  2. Plemmons DK, Kalichman MW. Mentoring for responsible research: The creation of a curriculum for faculty to teach RCR in the research environment. Sci Eng Ethics. 2018;24(1):207–26.
  3. Kalichman MW, Plemmons DK. Intervention to promote responsible conduct of research mentoring. Sci Eng Ethics. 2018;24(2):699–725