Responsibilities to Undergraduate and Graduate Students


This case discusses issue regarding professors' responsibilities for helping their undergraduate and graduate students understand the material they are being taught, specifically advising and providing resources for tutoring.


Laura, an undergraduate, did her senior honors thesis in Professor Hopkin's lab. Because Hopkin was busy with teaching and other administrative duties, he asked Ryan, a senior graduate student in the lab, to help advise Laura. Although Ryan was busy running the last of his dissertation experiments and writing up the results, he agreed to advise Laura in order to help out Professor Hopkin and to gain some mentoring experience.

Soon after Ryan started advising Laura, he realized that it was more work than he had anticipated. He was meeting with Laura every day for one to five hours to talk about her experiment. He advised her on experimental protocol and informed consent, setting up the experiment, and the most appropriate statistical tests for her data. This pattern continued throughout the fall and winter terms. Ryan was surprised to find that he did not mind helping Laura out so much. In fact, he enjoyed being the adviser and helping Laura find her way in science. In addition, he was really beginning to enjoy the theory behind the experiment.

At the start of spring term, Ryan was working in the main lab room when he overheard Laura talking to Hopkin in one of the smaller testing rooms in the lab about all the work she had been doing; she did not mention Ryan's help. Ryan was quite upset. After all, he had spent months helping Laura from the conceptualization stage to actually running the experiment and analyzing the data. But instead of talking to either Laura or Hopkin about this oversight, Ryan decided to cut back on the amount of assistance he was giving Laura. He avoided working in the lab when Laura was around and only met with her once a week when she managed to track him down. It was difficult for him to step away, not only because he had spent quite a long time on the project, but because he really enjoyed the science and theory behind it. However, Ryan did not like confrontation and so he felt like his only option was to back away from the project.

A month later, Laura presented her senior thesis work to the department. At the end of her presentation, she mentioned that she and Hopkin were preparing a manuscript reporting the work. Neither Laura nor Hopkin had mentioned to Ryan that they were thinking of publishing her findings. When Ryan asked Hopkin whether he would be listed as an author on the paper, Hopkin replied that Laura had done all the work without his help so there was no reason for him to be a co-author. Ryan finally told Hopkin that he had helped Laura considerably throughout the fall and winter terms. Hopkin replied that even though Ryan may have helped out in the beginning, he had not been there throughout the project, and therefore would not be a co-author.

Discussion Questions

  1. Was Hopkin's decision fair to Ryan? To Laura?
  2. What could Ryan have done early on to ensure a different outcome? Was his behavior self-destructive?
  3. Do you think Hopkin should allow Ryan to be a co-author on the paper? What would have to change for Hopkin to allow Ryan to be a co-author?
  4. Should Ryan have been given the task of solely advising Laura? How would the situation be different if Ryan had not spent so much time helping Laura?
  5. What are graduate students' responsibilities to undergraduates working in their lab?
  6. What are professors' responsibilities to their graduate students in terms of advising them and/or in terms of the obligations of authorship? Do those responsibilities differ for undergraduate students working in their labs?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 6, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2002.

. . Responsibilities to Undergraduate and Graduate Students. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

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.

Author: Deborah G. Johnson, University of Virginia.

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?