Research integrity is learned in PhD supervision


For young researchers, the dissertation supervision relationship is a central environment for socialisation in research integrity.

Writing a dissertation is at the heart of PhD training and a student’s transition to a researcher. By completing their dissertation, doctoral students learn the stages and procedures of conducting research and absorb the principles and practices of the scientific community. Many principles and ways of acting are mutually agreed within the scientific community itself. The general principles of ethical research, such as on the one hand, honesty, care, accuracy and respecting the work of other researchers (research integrity), and, on the other, respecting research subjects, promoting good and avoiding harm (research ethics) are by their nature general and apply to all research, irrespective of the scientific field or research organisation.

Carrying out research is also associated with many practices and tacit information specific to the scientific field and to the local scientific community, which guide the ways in which the principles of research integrity are realised and how they are respected in day-to-day research activities and associated interaction. The supervision relationship is a central forum for modelling and learning these practices.

Research integrity is learned through supervision

Besides putting the principles of research integrity into words, dissertation supervisors model the rules of research integrity of the scientific community to their doctoral students through their own actions. In addition, the interaction between the supervisor and the supervisee demonstrates and teaches the ethical rules of supervision and interaction with the scientific community. This being the case, for young researchers, the supervision relationship is a central environment for socialisation in research integrity.

On the one hand, supervision encompasses ethical questions relating to the research process and the end product. The supervisor helps the doctoral student to understand research as a process and to envisage the aims of the end result or product. Supervision addresses questions arising at different phases of research, such as ethical questions and methodological choices and boundaries linked to the subject of the research, and questions associated with interpreting the findings, for example.

Discussions surrounding communicating the research, the choice of publication channels, the rules of co-authorship and obtaining funding are also part of the supervision remit. The way in which these questions involving ethical choices are handled, and how potential challenges and problems are tackled within the remit of supervision, communicates to the doctoral student to what extent ethical questions are considered important in the scientific community in question.

Secondly, the ethics of supervision are also demonstrated in the supervision relationship – in practice what kind of ethical rules are possible, acceptable and recommended in the supervision relationship. The ethical operating models conveyed in the supervision relationship are passed on from one generation of researchers to the next by explicit or implicit practices. Sometimes, however, what is said and what is done contradict each other. In such cases, from the point of view of the doctoral student’s learning, what is done often carries more weight than what is said.

Ethical problems in supervision

Handling ethical challenges and problems associated with supervision is part of socialisation into a scientific community. The community has a significant responsibility for maintaining an ethically sustainable set of values. Ethical problems are often seen differently by different parties. Without analysis of problematic situations from many angles and illuminating the principles that underlie the actions taken, interpretations can easily remain one-sided. The risk of tensions arising in the supervision relationship is also exacerbated by the fact that the relationship is a long-lasting one involving close collaboration in which there is a clear and strong power relationship.

Where ethical challenges arise, the individual’s freedom of self-determination, avoiding harm, promoting good, fairness or trust are threatened. National and international research integrity guidelines are typically based on these values. Breaches of ethical principles become apparent as ethical challenges and problems that can, for example, be linked to experiences of exploitation, abuse, unfair treatment, bullying and role conflicts, conflicts in the task of the supervisor and the boundaries of the supervision task, restricting the autonomy of the supervisee or a lack of support and experiences of negligence. Where themes concerning failure to comply with the principle of promoting good appear in students’ experiences (for example, a student experiences that they cannot discuss other factors in their life that are affecting their work on their dissertation), supervisors are concerned about avoiding harm (for example, the effect of experienced role conflicts on supervision) (see table 1).

Table 1. Ethical principles in supervision and forms in which problems may arise.



Examples of forms in which ethical problems arise

Avoid harm

  • Exploitation/abuse of the work of a person in a weaker position
  • Stealing the findings of someone else’s work
  • Bullying
  • Role conflicts

Promote good

  • Placing wellbeing at risk
  • Deficient supervision

Support autonomy

  • The supervisee being forced into choices in line with the supervisor’s values or opinions when there may reasonably be options that support other viewpoints
  • Restricting research angles without justification


  • Abandoning the supervisee, leaving them without supervision
  • Treating another person with disrespect


  • Unequal treatment
  • Determining authorship other than on the basis of who did the work

Supervision is a community matter

Supervisors encounter a wide range of ethical questions, in which the benefits to the supervisees, the supervisor and the scientific community may be opposed, and in which supervisors have to weigh up the justification of different solutions. This situation is not made any easier by the fact that the supervisor often has many different roles in relation to the supervisee, e.g. supervisor, superior and head of research group. In addition, different students need different kinds of support, and one individual student’s support needs may also differ at different stages of the dissertation process. In many cases, ethical problems are also part of the wider supervision remit, but supervisors often try to resolve them alone.

If the supervision relationship is seen only as a relationship between the supervisor and the student, it is understandable that supervisors view their supervisory responsibility and thus also their responsibility for resolving problems as being solely their own, rather than seeing the community formed of responsible actors as being a resource for resolving the ethical challenges arising within supervision. Besides their supervisor, a postgraduate student also encounters many other actors (e.g. co-supervisor, other PhD students, researchers and experts) and participates in a wide range of different groups such as a seminar group, their own research group and the work of national and international collaborative partners and networks. All these partly affect the kind of ethical practices and cultures that students take on board. In the best case, they may be harnessed as resources for supervision and ethical problem solving.

It is important to recognise when a problem can be resolved by an individual supervisor and supervisee and when the solution requires the input of the wider scientific community. If supervision is largely seen as a matter between the individual supervisor and the doctoral student, there is usually a high threshold for intervening in ethical problems in the supervision relationship. Sometimes the way in which the community talks about supervision and students may reveal a problematic attitude or discriminatory practice. Identifying these issues within the community requires sensitivity to discourse and a willingness to expose familiar practices to a critical gaze.

Unfortunately, this kind of everyday non-accusatory or problem-centred discussion forum is often lacking. For young researchers, the threshold for intervening in the event of inappropriate behaviour may be high. On the other hand, supervisors may take it for granted that students know, recognise and act in line with guidelines on research integrity. In research communities where the competitive spirit is particularly strong, students run a greater risk of adopting ways of acting that deviate from the norms of the scientific community.

Supervising a scientific working process is part of a broad and multi-layered community of practice involving many actors. Sometimes the community is not capable of supporting the development of a supervisee into an independent actor and the consequences become apparent as ethical problems within the supervision remit. The ways in which questions relating to supervision are tackled and resolved serve as a model for future generations of researchers. Responsibility for promoting ethically sustainable operating models lies with all members of the scientific community, but supervisors are in a key position due to their task and their experience. In the best case, dynamic and multi-faceted interaction supports the agency of the supervisee themselves and helps them to develop as an expert in their own field.

TENK’s recommendations as support in the PhD process

To support the scientific community and supervisors, the Finnish National Board on Research Integrity TENK and Universities Finland (UNIFI) have drawn up recommendations setting out the phases, responsibilities and duties of the supervision and examination process, mainly from an ethical viewpoint. Ethical challenges and questions cannot be avoided, and nor do they need to be avoided, but they should be identified and resolved before they become problems and give rise to questionable practices which may be extremely difficult to root out. The following measures can be used to create more ethically sustainable supervision practices:

  • Agreeing rights and obligations
  • Active use of a supervision agreement
  • Justifying operating models and choices
  • Listening to the experiences of doctoral students
  • Putting ethical questions and challenges into words
  • Identifying different supervision resources
  • Sharing ethical challenges and problems in the scientific community
  • Enabling peer support for supervisors who are considering ethical viewpoints in their supervision work.

Erika Löfström, Professor of Education, University of Helsinki
Kirsi Pyhältö, Professor of Education, University of Oulu and Research Director, University of Helsinki

Further information:

Aspects related to research integrity for dissertation supervision and review. Recommendations for universities by the Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity and Universities Finland UNIFI (2016):
Anderson, M. S. & Louis, K. S. (1994). The graduate student experience and subscription to the norms of science. Research in Higher Education 35: pp. 273–99.
Kitchener, K. S. (1985). Ethical principles and ethical decisions in student affairs. In: H. J. Canon & R. D. Brown (eds.). New Directions for Student Services: Applied Ethics in Student Services, (pp. 17–29). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Löfström, E. & Pyhältö, K. (2015). Ethics in the supervisory relationship: supervisors’ and doctoral students’ dilemmas in the natural and behavioural sciences. Studies in Higher Education. DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2015.1045475.
Löfström, E. & Pyhältö, K. (2014). Ethical Issues in Doctoral Supervision – The perspectives of PhD students in the Natural and Behavioural Sciences. Ethics & Behavior, 24(3), pp. 195–214.
Löfström, E. & Pyhältö, K. (2012). The supervisory relationship as an arena for ethical problem-solving. Education Research International (Special Issue on the Moral Core of Teaching), article ID 961505, 1-12, DOI:10.1155/2012/961505.
Pyhältö, K., Stubb, J. & Lonka, K. (2009). Developing scholarly communities as learning environments for doctoral students. International Journal for Academic Development 14, pp. 221–232.

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