Learning about Research Integrity from our supervisors

By Dr Sam Oakley, Research Governance and Integrity Manager, in the Research Services Directorate

Importantly, we are learning too. Staff Research Integrity training is assessed by a set of short reflective questions and it is from these responses that we have really developed our understanding of how supervisors feel about their role

Research Integrity is one of our institutional strategic priorities for Research Culture. If we are taking a ‘cultural approach’ it’s essential that the training we roll out for our researchers is not just policy-driven from the top down also enables us to learn from their experiences and perspectives in order to drive improvements back up to our policies, our service and the training itself. As you can tell from our earlier post on the challenges embodied within the role of the research supervisor, it’s particularly vital that we understand and support the role of supervisors and managers of researchers in this.

As the 2020 UK report “Research integrity: a landscape study” mentioned, “A common model assumes that supervisors will instruct their researchers in research integrity. In many cases, however, supervisors are not trained themselves and may not feel recognised for providing this instruction.”

At the University of Glasgow PGR Supervisors are required to complete the staff version of our Research Integrity training module. This mandate acknowledges the significance of their influence as they guide their PGRs (and Research Staff) through that complex practice. It also provides them with resources to do this, and covers how to signpost to the expert support available for related issues such as Ethical Review and approval or Data Management expertise.

Our staff Research Integrity training offers a choice of topics to study in more depth and one of these is the close links between PhD Supervision and Research Integrity. It has been noticeable that a high proportion of staff pick this topic and comment upon its usefulness, noting that it works as both an introduction for newer staff and a refresher for more experienced supervisors. Making space to explain and discuss what we tell the PGRs learn in their version of the Research Integrity training and how a supervisor can build on that to be supportive yet vigilant, has been a welcome addition to our supervisor development offer across the university.

Importantly, we are learning too. Staff Research Integrity training is assessed by a set of short reflective questions and it is from these responses that we have really developed our understanding of how supervisors feel about their role, where they need support and – sometimes – the significant experiences which shape their practice. The online course has been running since 2020 so we now have a substantial volume of staff who have completed the training (well over 1000!) making for significant insight for the team. As one would hope, many of the reflections relate to discipline-specific issues, but some key multi-disciplinary themes emerge, which I share below:

Supervisors are awesome at this!

The depth of reflection, the care and the expertise revealed through the training responses is always inspirational! It’s also clear how much enthusiasm there is for discussion of ideas that are core to their research and supervisory practice.

The Supervisor’s own Experience

Supervisors reveal how much their own experiences affect their practice: many say that they had exceptional supervisors who inspired and modelled their Research Integrity practice. A few say that they had little support or guidance and this drives them with a passion to be different, to be better. Given that many supervisors will complete the training when they first join the university, many responses highlight the difference from previous institutions and other countries. An important reminder to us of the diversity of experiences that supervisors bring to their role.

Connecting Research Integrity and Wellbeing

In our short module, we include a strong message that the wellbeing of PGRs has a direct relationship with research misconduct: stress and despair are the drivers for bad decisions. Wright et al 2008 noted in their study of misconduct cases by PGRs that “over 50% experienced some kind of stress”. This is commented on by many supervisors, sometimes with surprise but more frequently because we are emphasising a message they already feel passionate about. We signpost our support services for wellbeing and also link to the excellent graphic resources by Dr Zoe Ayres (several comment they have printed these out to put on their wall) and our Supervisor Community of Practice provides further resources and peer advice for supporting PGR wellbeing.

Authorship is still a problem

Both supervisors (and PGRs) mention authorship issues. Whilst they report that the majority of these occurred at their prior institutions, it is clear that there is still much work to be done to support – and insist upon – conversations about authorship between PGRs and their supervisory team. There is an inevitable tension between our institutional guidance (in our Code of Good Practice in Research, which follows the prevailing ICMJE standard), subject differences – particularly acute in interdisciplinary teams – and the expectations of collaborators. The supervisor needs to be enabled to support their PGRs with an acute awareness of the power imbalance in that relationship: authorship decisions should be discussed together, with the reasons for decisions clearly articulated. Some supervisors have developed more formal mechanisms or guidelines to support this process. Many endorse the use of CRediT to list specific contributions.

Time is the No.1 Challenge

Above all, it’s abundantly clear that supervisors from all disciplines care and have a deep interest in supporting their PGRs with Research Integrity, often as part of developing their own practice. We see such rich reflections on disciplinary challenges and engagement with the ethics (in the widest sense) of their work being done. Finding the time to nurture conversations on this topic is the real challenge. We do encourage supervisors to do this within supervisory meetings (checklists are surprisingly popular for this, for example UKRIO’s ‘Checklist for Researchers’) but better still is ensuring there are opportunities to do this with a wider group. Informal peer review sessions, journal clubs, conference sessions are all ideal opportunities for this, and take the weight of responsibility off the supervisor.

As the Research Governance and Integrity team work to respond to these clear messages from Glasgow’s supervisors, we invite comments on how others support the development of these intertwined issues.

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