7. Governance of the relationship between the supervisor and the PhD candidate/student

Here, you can find examples of problems that may arise in the relationship between a supervisor and the person supervised, and suggestions for dealing with the problems.

Lack of openness in research culture
7.1: Unclear responsibility with regard to change of supervisor/resignation of candidate
7.2: Lack of openness in research culture

Lack of clarity about the use of data and publication in the project.
7.3: Supervisor's (mis)use of the candidate's data
7.4: Shift of focus in paper to achieve publication


Lack of openness in supervisor relationship


Case 7.1: Unclear responsibility with regard to change of supervisor/resignation of candidate
A change of supervisor can cause problems, especially because the expressions of concern arrive too late. The problem is often personal chemistry that does not function well between the candidate and the supervisor. One faculty tries to arrange 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 discontinue 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 discontinue the thesis work, and what should one do when personal chemistry is not functioning well – who should be responsible for doing what?

General comment: This is a problem that is often not identified in the contractual reporting from the supervisor and candidate. There may be many different reasons for this; conflicts of interest and a closed communications culture prevail in some cases. However, the situation often creates an ethical dilemma: On the one hand there are legal obstacles to asking a candidate to abandon the programme; on the other, there is evasion of responsibility in not reporting that the candidate is unsuitable. In this area it seems that NTNU needs much greater openness, and clearer contractual terms at the same time.


Case 7.2: Lack of openness in research culture
This involves a candidate who left without communicating with his supervisor.

The case involved new instrumentation that did not function. The PhD candidate who was working with this felt neglected by the researcher group, was left to his own devices, and abandoned his studies. He had not communicated to his supervisor that he did not feel that he was appreciated or taken seriously. The main problem was probably that the individuals did not function together, and that the supervisor did not understand the problem. Part of the problem is the asymmetrical relationship between the PhD candidate and the supervisor.

Questions: How should such situations be handled? Who is in a position to speak up?

General comment: The asymmetrical relationship between the supervisor and candidate is often an important point of departure for this type of conflict that does not come to the surface. This asymmetry is built into the system, and is not necessarily a problem in itself. This necessitates a research culture that makes it easy to avoid situations such as the one described above. As in many other cases, it is not the formal system that is inadequate, but the threshold for taking up problems that may entail personal criticism is too high. An informal body could perhaps be an intermediary in such cases? Enhancing the accountability of the researcher community could be another solution, so that problems of this nature are not left to the individual, but become a collective commitment for which everyone must take responsibility. However, it requires a relatively low threshold for whistle-blowing.


Lack of clarity about the use of data and publication in the project.


Case 7.3: Supervisor's (mis)use of the candidate's data
A supervisor published results before the candidate who had produced them had completed the PhD. As the supervisor had published the results, which were was based on the candidate's wealth of interesting data from the lab, there was nothing left for the candidate to publish.

Questions: Does a supervisor have the right to use the results produced by the PhD candidate/master's degree student, and if so, when?

General comment: In this case it is easy to identify the main problem: either lack of will or lack of insight on the supervisor's part with regard to candidates' rights to their own material. Even though the regulations are fairly clear, there are still many cases in which they are not followed. Here, we refer to the Vancouver Group guidelines, which apply in particular to medical disciplines, and to some extent technological disciplines, as well as to an article about co-authorship. In addition, it may be useful to know the content of Norway's Copyright Act [Åndsverksloven].



Case 7.4: Shift of focus in paper to achieve publication
A master's degree student was offered the opportunity to be included in a publication if she took a specific approach to the topic. This prerequisite was set by the supervisor. One of the conditions was that she had to cut down on the theory. This was an attractive choice because of the potential for publication. At the same time, it proved unfavourable because it had a negative effect on the grade when the dissertation was assessed. In addition, it turned out that the student was not included in the publication after all.

Questions: What is ethically problematic about this situation, and how could the outcome have been better for the student?

General comment: There is primarily a lack of clarity in the contract, and how this is to govern the relationship between the supervisor and the student — especially with regard to publication of data. We do not know whether it is lack of insight into the regulations or circumventing of the regulations that is the problem here. Whichever it is, the supervisor must take the greatest responsibility here, not least because of his or her position of power in the supervisor relationship.