6. The research process. Contracts and reporting routines

Here you can find examples of problems and dilemmas that may arise in various phases of the contractual relationship (master's and PhD.)

Case
Start-up phase:

6.1: Inadequate contract and breach of contract
6.2: Confusing allocation of responsibility and roles: Conflict of interest and shift in the project
6.3: Research contract signed on dubious terms
6.4: Lack of clarity about required duties in contract

Midway:

6.5: Shift in the project and breach of contract with source of funding
6.6: Unclear responsibility with regard to change of supervisor

Final phase:

6.7: Standards for co-authorship
6.8: Different norms for supervisor as co-author in multidisciplinary projects

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Start-up phase

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Case 6.1: Inadequate contract and breach of contract
A PhD candidate who is to do a great deal of work with experiments is unwilling to work outside the hours of 8:00-16:00. The supervisor sees that it is not possible to complete the work without more funding. This results in breach of contract. Part of the problem is that experiments control the person, not the other way around. However, there is nothing in writing in the contract stating that this is not a job with working hours from 8:00 to 16:00, on the basis of compensation in the form of time off later. On the one hand, the situation indicates a termination process due to breach of contract, but no one does anything. It all takes its own course until the money runs out, and the project falls through.

Questions: How should the contract be enforced — who is responsible for ensuring that this takes place?

General comment: This case seems to concern an inadequate contract, but also possible breach of contract and reluctance to take action. There seem to be obligations that are not written in the contract -- perhaps they have been communicated orally.

Comments from the pilot testers:
Comment 1: Isn't it the supervisor's responsibility to enforce the contract, in addition to providing enough information in advance to avoid such incidents?

Comment 2: Shouldn't this have been specified in the contract? Why is the candidate unwilling? Perhaps it is a candidate with young children, who is dependent on the opening hours for day care or for an "SFO" programme that provides activities for children outside school hours? The announcement text should then have made it clear that this was a position requiring irregular working hours, which might therefore not be suitable for everyone?

The PhD contract (doc) provides general guidelines, but does not include anything specific about irregular working hours.

Equal opportunity at NTNU (Norw.)

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Case 6.2: Confusing allocation of responsibility and roles: Conflict of interest and shift in the project
The Research Council of Norway contributes to the funding of a PhD project together with the faculty. During the project, the PhD candidate wants a new supervisor. This change results in a shift in the project, which the supervisor supports. The project is treated as though it is based on an open grant, and the provisions of the contract are inadequately communicated or disregarded. A conflict of interest develops between the PhD candidate/supervisor and the contract client. The faculty is faced with a problem when the project no longer fulfils the client's criteria for funding. The result is that the faculty has to take over the funding responsibility to enable the candidate to complete the thesis.

Questions: Why does this conflict of interest entail an ethical dilemma?

General comment: In this example there has been inadequate communication of project guidelines, a lack of openness, an unclear contract, as well as an allocation of responsibility and roles that is ambiguous and difficult to interpret. As in several other cases, a lack of transparency and unclear allocation of responsibility and roles is a recurring theme. To some extent this may be an example of unclear lines of responsibility, but it may also indicate conflicts of interest.

Comments from the pilot testers:
Comment 1: A classic example of inadequate information, expectations and requirements associated with the project.

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Case 6.3: Entry into research contract on dubious terms
A four-year PhD with teaching duties was funded by the Research Council of Norway. One of the candidates who was invited to an interview for the PhD knew that she was pregnant, but did not mention this in the interview. The supervisor was aware of the pregnancy, and nevertheless encouraged the candidate to apply. She was assessed on an equal footing with a male applicant. The project has a limited time frame.

Questions: Should the pregnancy be taken into account in the decision, and should the female applicant therefore have provided information about this? Or is it appropriate to incorporate restrictions in some projects?

General comment: It is not obvious that this should be regarded as inadequate communication of important information and a blameworthy lack of openness.

Comments from the pilot testers:
Comment 1: If the information about the time aspect, teaching duties, etc., was good enough, the candidate should have provided information about this. There should not be any restrictions on who can apply. It is still only women who give birth to children, and it should be possible to combine a career and family life. For this reason, openness in such situations is especially important. The time aspect is also important; it should be possible to combine a four-year project with one year of leave.

Comment 2: A new mother does not need to take that many weeks of leave herself (it is possible for the child's father to take quite a large part of the period of leave). Perhaps the candidate considers such a division of roles quite feasible, so that it is not relevant to mention the pregnancy? Or that such questions must not in fact be asked in connection with job interviews.

Equal opportunity at NTNU (Norw).

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Case 6.4: Lack of clarity about required duties in contract
A PhD candidate was asked by his supervisor to organize a conference. He felt that he could not say no, because he assumed that his relationship with the supervisor was poor. However, this work was not approved as required duties for his PhD. The PhD candidate experienced this as unclear regulation of the contract, and a lack of motivation in the system to ensure that regulation of required duties was clear enough. The consequence for the PhD candidate was that this affected both research and leisure.

Question: What can be done to improve such situations?

General comment: This case concerns a lack of clarity and different interpretations by the supervisor and the PhD candidate regarding which tasks can be imposed without being counted as required duties. The candidate perceived this not only as a problem in relation to the supervisor, but also as a system problem that it was difficult to do anything about.

Comments from the pilot testers:
Comment 1: Would it be in our interests to have regulations that are so detailed that we avoid such incidents?

Comment 2: Problems related to what can be counted as required duties are not that unusual, are they? Probably wise to include as much specific detail as possible in the contract.

Here is a link to DION on the subject of required duties. This states that there are great differences between institutes, and that a great deal of required duties probably take place unseen.

University of Tromsø, Faculty of Humanities, Social Sciences and Education, clear guidelines (in Norwegian).

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Midway

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Case 6.5: Shift in the project and breach of contract with source of funding
(clinical medical project that was changed to a basic research project along the way)

A clinical research project was funded by the Research Council of Norway, the Norwegian Foundation for Health and Rehabilitation, the Norwegian Cancer Society (Kreftforeningen) and the collaborating organization for the Central Norway Regional Health Authority/NTNU. During the project, changes were made in relation to the original research protocol — changes over which no one had control. It shifted from a clinical research project to a basic research project. The conditions for funding were thus breached. Several problems resulted from this shift in the project.

Questions:

  • There were many applicants for the project — what about the relationship to other applicants?
  • The supervisor had greater interests in basic research than in clinical research — what about the responsibility for shift of the project?
  • What about the candidate's loyalty to the source of funding and the supervisor?
  • Who is competent to define research needs – perhaps the supervisor's shift was motivated by consideration of the public interest?

General comment: This case raises many important issues related to contracts, the supervisor-candidate relationship, conflicts of interest, and openness.

Guidelines for natural sciences and technology (in Norwegian).
PhD contract (doc), in particular, see § 4 regarding the duty to provide information.

The candidate and the supervisor(s) undertake to keep one another informed on an ongoing basis about all matters of significance for supervision, The parties undertake to actively follow up any matters which could lead to supervision not functioning as is agreed in § 5 below.

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Case 6.6: Unclear responsibility with regard to change of supervisor
This concerns routines for providing feedback about the candidate's suitability for research, among other issues. A change of supervisor can cause problems, especially because expressions of concern arrive too late. The problem is often poor personal chemistry. The faculty strives to achieve a 3rd semester assessment of the supervisor function, which includes the Vice-Dean, the head of the PhD programme, the supervisor and the candidate. An important assessment may be whether the candidate should be advised to terminate the programme. However, this also entails legal problems. From the faculty's perspective, this is also a key responsibility for the department head, as the departments and not the faculty receive the incentive funding for completed theses.

Questions: What should determine whether the candidate should be advised to abandon the thesis work, and what should one do when the personal chemistry is not working – who should be responsible for doing what?

General comment: A change of supervisor is one of the most difficult situations once problems have arisen. This may involve conflicts of interest to some extent, but very often it is personal chemistry that is the greatest problem. The reporting systems available at NTNU are often not good enough; clearer procedures for handling such cases are needed, not least to lower the threshold for taking action. An important first step will be to create greater openness and to defuse the situation at the same time

Comments from the pilot testers:
Comment 1: A well-functioning supervisor relationship benefits the department in every way, both academically and financially. For this reason they should have arranged for a change of supervisor -- actually a shared responsibility: the candidate must inform the department management and the department management must take action.

Link to the Faculty of Social Sciences and Technology Management (SVT) concerning change of supervisor (in Norwegian).

However, the problem is often to take this step yourself; this is where the greatest challenge lies.

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The concluding phase

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Case 6.7: Standards for co-authorship
Some theses are sets of articles, even at faculties where monographs have previously been the tradition. When should the supervisor be a co-author instead of only being acknowledged in the foreword? This question is increasingly relevant for several faculties as co-authorship is encouraged. A potential budget-related incentive for certain faculties may also apply if several authors are included.

Questions: Should the arts and the social sciences have a consistent standard that governs co-authorship (similar to the Vancouver Group guidelines for medical subjects), and if so, which criteria should be used?

Comments from the pilot testers:
Comment 1: If the doctoral thesis consists of articles in which the supervisor is a co-author, it may be difficult for a committee to evaluate the candidate's contribution?

Comment 2: Practice varies between faculties; the question is whether there should be more consistent standards?

Article about co-authorship, see Hva er en medforfatter? in Tidsskrift for den norske lægeforening [the journal of the Norwegian Medical Association].

Regulations, see the discussion of the Vancouver Group guidelines by the National Committees for Research Ethics in Norway.

Direct link to the rules.

From Håndbok for god forskningsetikk [Manual for ethical practice in research], The University of Oslo (UiO).

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Case 6.8: Different norms for supervisor as co-author in multidisciplinary projects
Many projects involve collaboration between medical and technological disciplines. However, there is great divergence in the norms for publication in the subject areas of these two faculties. For example, in technological disciplines there is no strong tradition of listing the supervisor as the last author of the articles in the thesis. This is in contrast to medical disciplines, where the position of last author is associated with greater merit than that of the second or third author in a long list. In multidisciplinary projects, this leads to problems of assessment, which in turn may impede multidisciplinarity.

Questions: How can NTNU solve the problem of multidisciplinary initiatives and projects that do not fit in with the line structure in organizational terms? This applies to everything from contracts, supervision, and assessment of professor competence to publication and recognition of merit.

General comment: Different publication standards are not necessarily a problem, but may become one in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary projects. Problems related to publication are a recurring issue. Conflicts of interest may often arise here, as well as a lack of clarity in the relationship between a PhD candidate/master's degree student and supervisor. Most of the activities at NTNU are governed by the line structure, but this is not always able to pick up vulnerabilities in multidisciplinary projects. Inadequate communication between different supervisors may often be the main problem.