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Responsibilities to Undergraduate and Graduate Students
Secondary Title Responsibilities to Undergraduate

Added04/21/2006

Updated10/28/2015

Authoring Institution Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE)
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Contributor(s) Brian Schrag
Notes Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 6, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2002
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Rights The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) grants permission to use these case and commentary material with the citation indicated above.
Year 2002
Publisher provided Keywords and Authorship Case Cases Collaboration Consent Credit Historical Informed Mentoring Publication research Subjects Type: University
Publisher Association for Practical and Professional Ethics
Language English
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  • Brian  Schrag

    Posted 13 years and 4 months ago

    Deborah G. Johnson 

    University of Virginia


    This case raises a whole host of issues having to do with faculty responsibilities and graduate students supervising undergraduate students. I would like to bring to the fore one particular aspect of this case, one that is typical of many research environments, where norms of practice are poorly understood and only vaguely articulated, rarely made explicit and not intentionally promulgated. This situation is ripe for misunderstanding.


    Typically, faculty members have many expectations of graduate students, but they are not explicitly stated. Rather, faculty members assume that graduate students already know what will be expected of them, or they assume the students will pick it up from the environment.


    Informal social practices are at the heart of all institutional activities. One enters a work environment and makes assumptions about all kinds of things that may or may not be explicitly stated; for example, that you will be paid on a regular basis; that you will be fairly evaluated; that you will be allowed sick time. In business environments, these general presumptions facilitate employer-employee relationships. However, when the norms of practice are not well understood or when individuals or groups of individuals who are working together have different assumptions about what they are supposed to do, how they will be evaluated and what they will get in return, the situation is ripe for conflict, disappointment and exploitation.


    A variety of factors explains the poor articulation of norms and conventions in academic research environments. For one, newcomers to the environment - graduate students - have little opportunity to learn these norms before they actually enter the environment. Even if graduate students have worked in labs as undergraduates and have some sense of what will be required, they are likely to have had only limited experience. While newcomers may be unfamiliar with the norms of behavior in research, faculty may not recognize the importance of developing and articulating the norms for graduate students. Faculty may give little thought to this necessity and simply presume the same environment they had in graduate school. Moreover, because many aspects of the research environment are relatively new, the norms are still evolving and there is no old practice to fall back on. Consider that fifty years ago there were hardly any research environments of the kind that exist today at many universities, i.e., with high levels of funding, large numbers of projects and teams, complexity of research organization, and so on.


    It is the poor articulation of norms of behavior that leads to the problems described in this case. Professor Hopkin asks Ryan to help advise Laura on her senior honors thesis, but what is entailed in this request and in Ryan's acceptance? As the case evolves, we see that Hopkin had certain ideas about what he expected Ryan to do and how long he expected Ryan to stay with it. Hopkin had criteria for Ryan's becoming a co-author on the publication of a senior thesis.


    The case suggests how much better the outcome would have been if Hopkin had explicitly explained to Ryan what his responsibilities would be in his role as adviser to Laura. Hopkin might have explained roughly how much time Ryan should spend, what kind of advice he should and shouldn't provide and so on. Hopkin might have specified at the beginning that the thesis might produce potentially publishable results and in what circumstances Ryan would be included. If Hopkin had articulated the norms for a relationship in which a graduate student advises an undergraduate student, Ryan would have a much better chance of successfully managing his relationship with Laura.


    The problem in this case arises, in large measure, because norms of practice are not well understood and are not made explicit. (Even if the norms are variable, an explicit discussion of the variability helps individuals manage their work.) It appears that Hopkin has not thought through the complexities of the relationship between Ryan and Laura adequately to anticipate some potentially problematic moments and give Ryan enough information to avoid problems.


    The commentary to the case is right in pointing out that Ryan could have avoided this problem if he had spoken out sooner. In other words, even though Hopkin can be faulted for not giving Ryan proper instruction in how to manage the relationship with an undergraduate, Ryan can be faulted for not responding in a way that would resolve the situation quickly and with minimal damage. Even if Hopkin had told Ryan not to invest too much time in Laura's project and that he would not be co-author on Laura's thesis publication, at least Ryan would not have a bad feeling about the situation. He would have understood from the start that he would not be included; he would have understood that as the norm for the situation.


    While the commentary suggests that Laura may be at fault for "taking more credit than she deserves," I am reluctant to draw this conclusion because Laura, as an undergraduate, is the least familiar with the norms of practice in research. She may simply not know that Ryan should be given credit. Again, Hopkin should have thought about and discussed this issue with her early on or at least when he saw that she was getting results that were worth publishing.


    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 6, 2002 

    edited by Brian Schrag

  • Brian  Schrag

    Posted 13 years and 4 months ago

    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 6, 2002 

    edited by Brian Schrag


    Compared to industry, many demands compete for Principal Investigators' (PIs') time on college campuses: They have teaching, administrative and laboratory responsibilities. Their ability to juggle all of these responsibilities is the subject of this case study, which illustrates how a PI's various roles affect the graduate and undergraduate students working in his lab.


    Professor Hopkin is swamped by academic and teaching responsibilities. He asks Ryan, a senior graduate student in the lab, to help advise Laura with her undergraduate honors thesis. This situation happens frequently in academia and can be mutually beneficial: The graduate student gains mentoring experience, and the PI is able to free some time. The situation goes awry when too much of the PI's responsibility is pushed onto the graduate student.


    Although Ryan enjoyed the time he spent helping Laura, he did not feel he was getting due credit. Instead of talking things out, however, he ignored the problem. The situation blew up when he found out that Laura and Hopkin were thinking of publishing the study. One important point to note is that the time to speak up about inconsistencies in practice is sooner, rather than later. The problem might have been avoided if Ryan had raised the issue a lot sooner than he did.


    The other glaring problem in the case study is Laura's taking more credit than she deserves. She might not have realized the inappropriateness of her actions. After all, she is an undergraduate with minimal lab experience. If that is the case, then Ryan could have used the opportunity to educate her on research norms. If she deliberately overstated her role in the experiment, then she needs to be educated. One of the hallmarks of good research mentors is that they are able to guide their advisees through the research process, informing them about good research practices and norms.


    The case study also brings up PIs' responsibility to their undergraduate and graduate students. Should the PI hold both classes of students to the same standards? Surely not. Undergraduates and graduate students should be held to different standards in terms of laboratory responsibilities and the extent of independent thinking expected of them, due to their different backgrounds. But how much work can a PI expect graduate students to do when it is not directly related to their own work?


    This case study brings up lots of interesting questions for discussion. Is the PI being fair when he excludes Ryan from the author list? Ryan did contribute quite a lot in the early conceptualization stages and in helping to set up the experiment.


    How should the PI handle a situation that pits an undergraduate's opinions against those of a graduate student? Should Hopkin take Ryan's comments at face value? What if Laura still insists that she did all the work?


    Finally, should it matter that a publication would help Ryan's graduate career more than Laura's undergraduate career? Would it matter if Laura were going into business after graduation rather than academia? What if Ryan were going into business?

Cite this page: "Responsibilities to Undergraduate and Graduate Students" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 4/21/2006 OEC Accessed: Monday, August 19, 2019 <www.onlineethics.org/Resources/gradres/gradresv6/responsibilites.aspx>