O, What a Tangled Web We Weave!


This case discusses the need for clarification of what is expected of a mentor, an advisor or a supervisor to a graduate student, the differences between mentors and advisors and the need for improved communication between both parties.


Bonnie Hogan, a doctoral student in the department of History and Philosophy of Science, is an active member of the Council of Graduate Students (COGS) at her university. She has a research assistantship with Dr. Todd Simpson, who is also her dissertation adviser. Ms. Hogan chose Dr. Simpson as her adviser because his research background was closely related to the topic on which she wanted to focus her dissertation. Although he offered helpful suggestions on her research, she was never able to develop the sort of relationship that with him that enabled her to discuss her long-term career plans and life goals. Due to his busy travel schedule, Ms. Hogan found it very difficult to schedule any time with Dr. Simpson, and impromptu meetings were impossible. When formal meetings were scheduled, he consistently interrupted their conversation by taking phone calls. In addition, Dr. Simpson frequently arrived late to scheduled meetings. Most of the feedback she did receive from him was in the form of written notes.

At the first COGS meeting of the year, Ms. Hogan met Dr. Maria Rodriguez, a faculty member from Molecular Biology. Although she is not an expert in the field of History and Philosophy of Science, Dr. Rodriguez took an interest in Ms. Hogan's work. Over time, the two of them developed a rapport that made it possible for Ms. Hogan to begin to discuss the long-term issues that she could not discuss with Dr. Simpson. Dr. Rodriguez regularly scheduled appointments with Ms. Hogan and specifically arranged time to talk about Ms. Hogan's plans and goals for her future. Dr. Rodriguez also showed an interest in Ms. Hogan's work and suggested articles and books that are relevant to her dissertation topic. Dr. Rodriguez also contacted some of her colleagues who are interested in Ms. Hogan's research topic and arranged for them to meet.

Over time, Ms. Hogan and Dr. Rodriguez developed a mutually trusting relationship, and Dr. Rodriguez ultimately became her mentor. (For discussion of positive mentor characteristics, see Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy 1997, 8.) Although busy with her own teaching, graduate students and research in Molecular Biology, Dr. Rodriguez agreed to be a member of Ms. Hogan's dissertation committee. She made a point to meet with Ms. Hogan and helps her identify ways to continue her research with another adviser, Dr. Patricia O'Halloran.

Dr. Simpson hired Ms. Hogan as a research assistant to help him with the literature review and proofreading necessary for a book he has contracted to write. As she is proofreading a draft of Dr. Simpson's work, Ms. Hogan finds approximately four pages of text that have been directly plagiarized from another author. She recognizes that a section of his chapter is taken verbatim from an article she reviewed earlier in her literature review for Dr. Simpson. She confirms the plagiarism by comparing Dr. Simpson's work to a copy of the original article.

Ms. Hogan realizes that this chapter is a draft that has not yet been sent to the publisher. At first, she does not know what to do. If she confronts Dr. Simpson with this information, what might be the repercussions? She wonders if she will lose her assistantship and, more importantly, what effect this situation might have on her future career. After contemplating her choices, Ms. Hogan decides to bring the plagiarism to Dr. Simpson's attention, so that he can correct the draft before publication. When she shows him the article from which he plagiarized, Dr. Simpson tells her to "grow up and understand that this goes on all the time. After all, no one ever gets hurt."

Ms. Hogan is in a dilemma. She cannot in good conscience continue to work with Dr. Simpson , but she does not want to throw away six years of graduate work.

Ms. Hogan contemplates taking formal action against Dr. Simpson with the Intellectual Integrity Officer, but fears that would jeopardize both her research assistantship and her ability to finish her degree. Frustrated and ready to quit, Ms. Hogan decides to talk with Dr. Rodriguez about her situation with Dr. Simpson. Dr. Rodriguez listens patiently to Ms. Hogan and gives her useful feedback as Ms. Hogan explores and evaluates possible options open to her. Dr. Rodriguez remains supportive throughout the ordeal as Ms. Hogan tries to figure out the best way to handle the situation. She leaves the final decision to Ms. Hogan, which fosters a sense of self-sufficiency. Hogan decides not to take any formal action against Dr. Simpson, at least until she has her degree in hand. (For further discussion see Pimple 1995.)

Ms. Hogan approaches her department chair for permission to change advisers. When asked why she wants to change advisers, Ms. Hogan gives a vague and untruthful answer. The department chair agrees, and Dr. O'Halloran becomes Ms. Hogan's new adviser. Although Dr. O'Halloran is not presently doing research in Hogan's area, her degree in History and Philosophy of Science and knowledge of Hogan's topic fully qualify her. This step enables Hogan to salvage most of her graduate work and research and maintain existing relationships with other committee members from her department. Through Dr. Rodriguez's contacts and help, Hogan is also able to obtain funding for her research and ultimately finish her degree. Dr. Simpson remains a tenured professor in the department of History and Philosophy of Science, continuing to advise a cadre of graduate students.

Discussion Questions

  1. What issues are associated with Ms. Hogan's wish decision not to blow the whistle against Dr. Simpson? She fears retribution, fears that all her work toward the dissertation will be jeopardized if she takes any action, fears future employability, fears that taking any action would have negative repercussions on her existing relationships within the department. Should these fears be the determining factors in her decision?
  2. Does Ms. Hogan have other options (such as writing a letter to the dean of research) besides taking "formal action"? Why or why not?
  3. What responsibilities must Dr. Rodriguez consider in deciding what to do with the information about Simpson's plagiarism, which Hogan shared with her in confidence? It would be important to check your own institutional policies on this matter.
  4. Did Ms. Hogan have an ethical or moral responsibility to tell the department chair the truth about Dr. Simpson when she asked for permission to change advisers?
  5. Is it possible to have a "successful" mentor outside your field or discipline? Why or why not?
  6. How might Ms. Hogan's actions have changed if Dr. Simpson's shortcomings were not egregious (i.e., plagiarism), but instead consisted of: repeated unprofessional behavior, such as having little (and poor) communication with Ms. Hogan; missing appointments and committee meetings; drinking alcohol during office hours; assigning inappropriate research projects; making gender slurs; skipping office hours; and generally creating a difficult research environment? Should this kind of unprofessional behavior be reported? If so, to whom?
  7. How can Dr. Simpson be held accountable for unprofessional behavior? Does Ms. Hogan have a responsibility as a graduate student to report Dr. Simpson's unprofessional behavior? Would this action adversely affect her standing within the department? If so, how?
  8. In light of the events presented in this case study, should Dr. Simpson advise graduate students? Why or why not?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 3, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 1999.

. . O, What a Tangled Web We Weave!. Online Ethics Center. DOI:. https://onlineethics.org/cases/graduate-research-ethics-cases-and-commentaries-volume-3-1999/o-what-tangled-web-we-weave.

The main issue raised by this case is the relationship between a graduate student and the student's faculty adviser. What should this relationship be like, and what can and should one do if the relationship goes sour? A secondary issue concerns how and when one should report misconduct by a faculty member.

Most will readily accept that misconduct is relevant to research ethics, but some will question whether the student-adviser relationship fits in this category. Because it concerns people's treatment of each other, many scientific societies and writers in the field of research ethics agree that treatment of graduate students is an issue in research ethics. A committee of the National Academy of Sciences included "Inadequately supervising research subordinates or exploiting them" among questionable research practices -- that is, "actions which violate traditional values of the research enterprise and that may be detrimental to the research process." (Responsible Science: Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process, Vol. 1, p. 28, National Academy Press, 1992) With regard to relationships in research groups going sour, as is the situation in this case, Weil and Arzbaecher assert, "We can collect these ways of going astray under broader ethical questions about how to wield power responsibly and how to behave responsibly as one dependent on the power of others. As we proceed to point out the kinds of standards and practices that are needed, we thereby delineate role responsibilities in research groups. To fail to fulfill these role responsibilities would be to behave irresponsibly, that is, unethically."(Weil and Arzbaecher, p. 78)

In the past, it was often assumed that the student's research adviser would serve as the student's mentor as well. This assumption is still common in the natural sciences, but more and more people are using the term "mentor" as an honorific rather than as a description of an assigned role. For instance, Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering, states:

In a broad sense, a mentor is someone who takes a special interest in helping another develop into a successful professional. . .A fundamental difference between a mentor and an adviser is that mentoring is more than advising; mentoring is a personal as well as a professional relationship. An adviser might or might not be a mentor, depending on the quality of the relationship. (National Academy of Sciences et al., 1997, 15)

While the best situation may be to have one person fulfill both roles, that is not always possible for a number of reasons. Concerning the choice of an adviser, the National Academies' Student Planning Guide says, "The ideal person can not only guide your career, support your research, and help to find you a job, but can also serve as a close and caring mentor - a 'research uncle,' as one author puts it. Obviously, this is a rare combination, but one worth searching for." (National Academy of Science, 1996, 69) Often the personalities of the student and the adviser do not facilitate such a close relationship, and even when personalities are compatible another person may be a better mentor in a specialized area such as teaching or preparation of presentations. In fact, it has been asserted that "[n]o mentor can know everything a given student might need to learn in order to succeed. Everyone benefits from multiple mentors of diverse talents, ages, and personalities." (National Academy of Science et al., 1997, 5) That can be especially true when the student is a woman and the faculty adviser is a man, as is the situation with Hogan and Simpson. It has been observed that "[w]hile academic advisors are supposed to serve as formal mentors for women, they do not always do an adequate job. . . . Women often react by reaching beyond their official advisors to find other mentors among faculty from other disciplines, peers, or classmates," just as Hogan reaches out to Rodriguez in this scenario. (Bird et al. 1993, 8) And the National Academy of Sciences et al. suggest, "You might decide to seek several advisers to broaden the range of counsel available to you . That is particularly important for women and minority-group students, who might wish to have a woman or member of their minority group as a mentor." (National Academy of Sciences, 1996, 75) For these reasons, having a mentor who is not one's research adviser, having more than one mentor, or developing group mentoring opportunities are now being encouraged.

When a student's relationship with a mentor who is not the research adviser goes sour, the termination of the relationship can be difficult, but it will not usually have long-term negative consequences for the student. However, termination of a relationship with a research adviser can lead to a number of negative consequences including slowed progress toward one's degree, a change in the direction of one's research project, damaged reputations, and perhaps the need for a change to a different department or school. The Student Planning Guide offers the following advice:

What can you do if the relationship with your adviser is a poor one? If the two of you cannot work it out, you should try to find another professor who is qualified and willing to take you on. In general, it is best to make a change as soon as you see that the situation is unworkable. . .Only if it is late in your student career should you endure a difficult situation rather than try for a better one. The head of the graduate program or the departmental chair might be able to help you to decide what to do and who might help you." (National Academy of Sciences, 1996, 75)

The Guide also notes, "It is very important to remember that the education of a graduate student is the responsibility of an entire department, not just of a single adviser." (National Academy of Sciences, 1996, 70) However, not all departments acknowledge this responsibility, and the effects of changing advisers will depend on many factors including the department's attitude toward such changes, the details of the specific situation, and how the student and the advisers, old and new, negotiate their way through the change. If it is possible to be civil and rational throughout, the change may be beneficial to all concerned, but rumors, accusations, and recriminations can easily poison the atmosphere.

The secondary issue, the misconduct charge against Simpson, will be addressed in the discussion questions.

Discussion Questions

Question 1

This question explores the reasons why Hogan might not want to publicly accuse Simpson of plagiarism. Naturally she fears direct retribution and damage to her relationships within the department and the discipline. While I agree with the NAS panel that "every case of misconduct in science is serious and requires action," (Author? Responsible Science: Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process, p. 31), I do not believe that the action must be either direct or immediate in this case. That is because the risk of potential harm to Hogan is so great while the risk of harm to others if she delays is minimal. Although Simpson goes too far when he assets that plagiarism is a harmless little transgression, it is true that it is not on the same level as publishing falsified data from a human clinical trial. Therefore, Hogan has some time to stop and carefully consider her actions.

First, she must be absolutely certain of what she saw, and she should have documentation; photocopies would be best. How much was plagiarized and where? Was it direct copying or a paraphrase without citation? Second, she needs to know her institution's regulations and the various routes by which she might make an accusation. Third, she needs to talk to a trusted faculty member like Rodriguez in confidence to check her reasoning and actions. Fourth, she needs to come up with as many creative possible courses of action as she can and then decide which is best. And fifth, she needs to design and carry out a plan of action. Steps four and five will probably involve consultations with the trusted faculty member.

These are steps that the discussion group can follow. The brainstorming to develop possible courses of action, and the investigation of institutional misconduct regulations and procedures might be the most valuable elements of the discussion. For instance, some may realize that it is not clear that Hogan needs to be directly involved in the accusation of misconduct at all. If Simpson publishes the book with the plagiarized material, then the author who was plagiarized could make the accusation, rather than Hogan. She need only make him/her aware of it, and that could even be done indirectly.

Question 2

Here we are asked to consider the conflict between Rodriguez's obligation to honor Hogan's request for confidentiality, and Rodriguez's obligation to her institution and the scientific community to report Simpson's plagiarism. As a faculty member and a member of the scientific community, Rodriguez has a responsibility to see that probable misconduct is reported to the proper authorities, but that does not have to be done immediately. It does not seem likely that the plagiarism will result in immediate, serious harm to anyone if it continues to go unreported for a while longer, and Rodriguez, like Hogan, needs to take time to learn about the facts of the situation and the local regulations, and to consider her options. She might even want to talk to a faculty friend in Simpson's department to sound out the situation there. Barring the risk of immediate harm to others, it is important that Rodriguez give Hogan time to develop her own plan for reporting the plagiarism, both because of her promise to Hogan to keep it confidential and because knowledge of the breached confidence would deter other students from seeking necessary advice in delicate matters. Thus, Rodriguez needs to respect Hogan's wish to develop her own plan for making the accusation, but Rodriguez does have an obligation to be sure that an accusation is made in a reasonable amount of time if the evidence for plagiarism is sound. A way needs to be found to make Simpson accountable while minimizing the possible harm to Hogan and herself, perhaps by having the accusation come from someone outside their institution.

Question 3

Some might argue that untruthful answers are never morally justified, but in this situation Hogan's untruthful response to the chair's question may be her best course of action, considering the possible consequences. However, that does not mean that Hogan has no responsibilities toward other graduate students, the academic community, or Simpson. Rather, it means that she may be able to fulfill those obligations through actions that pose less risk to herself.

Question 4

Many scientists believe that it is possible to have a successful mentoring relationship with a faculty member outside one's department or discipline. In discussions of mentoring with graduate students, I am learning of an increasing number of such successful pairings, particularly among students who have more than one mentor.

Questions 5 and 6

As written, the case indicates that Simpson's plagiarism leads Hogan to decide that she cannot continue to be advised by a person who knowingly engages in such unprofessional conduct. However, an adviser could engage in other types of unprofessional behavior that might make the continued relationship impossible for the student. These questions ask what a student could and should do in such a situation.

There are many reasons why the relationship between a student and his/her research adviser might go sour, short of unprofessional behavior. However, the basic advice is the same for almost all situations: Try to resolve the situation through improved communication and/or changes in procedures; if not, change advisers as soon as possible. What varies from situation to situation is whether the student should report the unprofessional conduct by the adviser, and to whom the report should be made. If the behavior is likely to be repeated with other graduate students and to have a deleterious effect on them as well, then the student has some obligation to report the behavior and so attempt to protect others. The report might be made to the graduate studies director of the department, the departmental chair, or some other senior faculty member who would have the standing to do something to change the adviser's behavior. Alternatively, a student might go to the university's graduate school administration, an advocacy office, or an ombudsperson, if one exists.

As discussed in the comments on Question 1, it is important to consider the person to be approached, the timing and the form of the complaint when projecting possible consequences and determining the best course of action. There is always the danger that the student, especially if she is a woman, will be viewed as a whiner and/or not tough enough for the academic world. The manner in which the complaint is made needs to be carefully considered to ensure that it is a factual report of observed incidents and not a formless recitation of grievances. In some cases it may be best to switch advisers first and report the unprofessional behavior later.

Question 7

I think that most will agree that Simpson is not qualified to train graduate students to become professionals in the field if he knowingly engages in plagiarism and thinks of it as typical behavior. The more interesting discussion would concern whether his behavior toward Hogan while her adviser would make him unsuitable to advise any graduate student. What are the minimal qualifications for an adviser? How can we help adequate advisers become great advisers?


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Author: Karen Muskavitch, Indiana University.

This case study is intended to highlight the differences between "advisers" and "mentors" and to show the positive effects a good mentor can have on a graduate student. Because mentoring can be construed differently across disciplines, clarification is needed. In academic settings, the term "mentor" is often simultaneously associated with the term "faculty adviser." In this case, however, the research adviser and mentor are not only two different people, but also come from different disciplines.

The Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy stated that "A fundamental difference between mentoring and advising is [that mentoring is] more than advising; mentoring is a personal, as well as, professional relationship." (Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, 1997, 1) Positive mentoring requires effort from both parties involved. A motivated graduate student helps the process of mentoring along, while the professor feels that she in not wasting anyone's time. Unfortunately, there is no optimal formula for positive mentoring. Each situation is complex, with many different factors entering the formula. Mentoring can differ on the basis of discipline, personality type, gender, ethnicity, knowledge of subject matter, and status of graduate student and professor.

The original concept of mentoring is an ancient one. Homer describes the first mentor as the "wise and trusted counselor" who is left in charge of Odysseus' household during his travels. Athena acted as the mentor and became the guardian and teacher of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. In the context of today's higher education, mentoring has many different facets. A mentor's primary responsibility is to help a graduate student and to take an interest the student's professional development. This responsibility requires patience, trust, effective communication, good role modeling and understanding from both parties involved. It also requires that both the professor and graduate student fully understand the ethics of research and abide by federal and institutional regulations and guidelines.

Swazey and Anderson suggest that a good mentor be skilled in interpersonal relationships and genuinely interested in the mentee's professional development. In addition, they suggest that the mentor be involved in teaching effective communication skills to the mentee. It is not surprising that research has shown that both faculty and graduate students consider mentoring relationships rare. (Friedman 1987)

An adviser, by contrast, performs more narrow or technical functions such as "informal advising about degree requirements, periodic monitoring of an advisee's research work and progress toward his/her degree" (Swazey and Anderson 1996, 6). In addition, the adviser usually serves as the principal investigator and/or laboratory director for the graduate student's project. In this capacity, the adviser instructs the graduate student on design, methodology, literature review, proposal and other aspects of the dissertation research.

This case study demonstrates the differences between adviser and mentor by suggesting that the two need not be the same person, or even come from the same discipline. Simpson's egregious ethical mistake undermines his position as adviser. Simpson's behavior effectively demonstrates the term "toxic mentoring" coined by Swazey and Anderson (1996). They cite four types of undesirable or "toxic" mentors: "avoiders" - mentors who are neither available nor accessible; "dumpers" - mentors who force novices into new roles and let them "sink or swim"; "blockers"- mentors who continually refuse requests, withhold information, take over projects, or supervise too closely; and "destroyers or criticizers" - mentors who focus on inadequacies. (From Darling 1986, quoted in Mateo et al. 1991, 76)

Although this case study raises several issues, such as whistle blowing and the vulnerable position of being both an advisee and employee, it is important to underscore the differences between the mentor/mentee and adviser/advisee relationship as it may affect the ethical environment for both faculty member and student. Effective communication is paramount in both relationships. Interestingly, a recent survey of graduate students at one university reported that just over half of all graduate students surveyed (52%, with 40% agreeing and 12% strongly agreeing) believe that communication between faculty and graduate students is satisfactory. While that result is gratifying, the survey raises questions about why 48% found communication between graduate students and faculty unsatisfactory.

A positive mentoring relationship can be an important asset to the graduate school process. If properly mentored, graduate students can expect to grow academically, professionally and personally and develop the skills necessary to become mentors themselves in the future. The mentor/mentee relationship cannot be ignored in higher education and should not be confused with the adviser/advisee relationship.


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