Too Much Help Is Not Enough
This case discusses issues of advisor's responsibilities as committee members, their student's needs and obligations to them in the research process.
Jill Johnson, a master's student, is preparing her thesis when one of her committee members is hospitalized. She approaches Dr. Wood, a tenure track professor who is new to the department, and asks if he would be willing to serve on her thesis committee. Wood indicates interest and asks about the timeline involved. Johnson reports that her thesis adviser Dr. Morris, a tenured professor who is the department chair, is hoping to stick to the originally planned meeting date for her prospectus meeting, which is in four days. Wood states that he will be attending a conference for the next three days and reminds Johnson that the department's policy requires that committee members have the manuscript at least two weeks in advance of a prospectus meeting. Johnson indicates that she would be willing to move the meeting date and they walk down the hallway to Morris's office.
Upon hearing the dilemma, Morris asks Johnson to leave her office. Morris explains that she will let Johnson know what is decided. Wood indicates that he will not be able to give the manuscript his full attention before the Friday meeting date. Morris tells him that she has thoroughly assisted Johnson in writing the manuscript and that the paper would not take more than 30 minutes for him to read. When Wood insists that he will not be able to give a 60-page paper his full attention before Friday, Morris replies that Johnson really won't need much input. She states that Johnson really just requires a third committee member to sign off for approval of the project.
1. How do the professional interests of Wood and Morris affect their actions and reactions in dealing with this situation?
2. What are the professional obligations of Wood? Morris?
3. Discuss possible concerns for Johnson, the student.
4. What might Wood's next move be?
Wood insists on delaying the meeting until early the next week so that he will have time to read the manuscript thoroughly. The committee assembles for Johnson's thesis prospectus meeting. It is common practice for all committee members to review the paper's contents prior to the meeting and then make suggestions or revisions during the meeting. The committee discusses recommendations with the student and then either approves or disapproves the study. If the committee approves Johnson's study, it gives her the green light to spend the next semester or two working on the project.
Wood arrives at the meeting with a clear understanding of the study's methodology based on the well-written prospectus. Following Johnson's oral presentation, the committee members ask questions of her. Wood begins by asking questions to get an idea of Johnson's general knowledge of the methods she proposed to use. When Johnson is unable to answer, Morris jumps in with a response.
Wood is concerned that, despite having written clearly about her study, Johnson appears unable to answer even basic questions about her protocol. Dr. Story, the outside committee member and a close friend of Morris's, also poses some basic questions to Johnson, and she responds in a similar fumbling, unsure manner. Morris is quick to interject answers each time Johnson is asked a question.
It is soon apparent that the study is truly Morris's and that Johnson cannot provide even basic explanations for the methodology or for the study itself. When the painfully long meeting ends, Morris and Story are ready to indicate in writing that the student can proceed. Wood is not convinced that Johnson has adequate knowledge of the study methods or the analysis to be used.
5. What are the benefits of allowing Johnson to proceed? for the student? for Wood? for the committee?
6. Could anyone else potentially benefit?
7. What are the potential repercussions in allowing Johnson to proceed? for the student? for Wood? for the committee?
8. Could anyone else potentially be harmed?
9. Do you think Wood should sign off on Johnson's prospectus and allow her to proceed?
10. How much assistance is it appropriate for an adviser to give a student who is preparing a thesis?
Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 6, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2002.
The author of this scenario quotes from Weil and Arzbaecher: The three major goals of research groups are "1) to get research done; 2) to get students trained; and 3) to acquire the funding needed to achieve the first two goals." The author suggests that Professor Morris may have acted to sacrifice the second of these goals in order to accomplish the first and possibly the third, and goes on to suggest that a discussion of this scenario should include a reflection of how these goals can be appropriately balanced and how inappropriate balancing can lead to unethical behavior.
I do not want to pick a fight with Weil and Arzbaecher, but I believe they have taken a very short-sighted view of university research. If they asked researchers what their goals are, they probably would have obtained the list above. That is what researchers are expected to say. But I suspect that probing and candid interviews with scientists that constitute a research group would have produced a far different list of goals. I suspect they would have listed their goals something like: 1) to win fame and recognition; 2) to discover new knowledge; 3) to do something beneficial for humanity; and 4) to have a rewarding career (with adequate compensation for doing interesting work).
Their job then, as opposed to their reasons for doing their job, would be to get the research done (so they can become famous, find new knowledge, and help others); train students (for the same reasons); and obtain funding (so they can continue their careers).
In that light, let us consider the actions of Professor Morris, who is clearly interested in getting this student, Johnson, to work on the project. Morris wants to be famous (an assumption based on extensive empirical evidence, but it could be challenged), discover new knowledge, do something beneficial (maybe) and have a great career. His student Johnson is his means to these objectives. He wants Johnson to finish so that the research can be published and enhance Morris's fame. I suspect that he cares little for Johnson's welfare, except that the sooner Johnson can graduate and join a faculty somewhere, the sooner Morris's fame as the producer of many PhDs will be slightly improved.
What Morris apparently does not understand is that one very bad PhD student can destroy one's reputation for graduating many good ones. In a way, this situation will be a self-correcting. When the word gets out, Morris will have a hard time attracting new graduate students, and if the research Johnson and his ilk will do is bad, Morris will not be able to get the findings published and will have increasing difficulty getting research funds. This outcome is sometimes known as Darwinian selection in science.
Author: P. Aarne Vesilind, Bucknell University.
This case was written for examination from several perspectives. It features four main players whose roles, obligations, and interests can be evaluated independently. Their interaction and effect on others also allows for discussion concerning ethical decisions. The roles of advisers with students, responsibilities of committee members, and student needs and obligations in the research process are among the issues to be highlighted.
Johnson is in the difficult position of needing to secure another committee member in a short time period. She feels comfortable approaching Dr. Wood about serving on the committee but is quickly placed between the two faculty members who do not agree on the timeline. Johnson's agenda at this point is to form a committee whose members will agree to a meeting date so that she can proceed with her study.
Wood is willing to accommodate the added burden he will assume in serving on the committee. He is not willing to compromise his input by rushing the meeting and not allowing himself time to adequately review the written manuscript. As a new, tenure-track professor, Wood likely desires to do well in his position and does not want to be ill-prepared for a prospectus meeting involving Dr. Morris, who is the department chairperson. On the other hand, he wants to help the student and accommodate Morris by meeting her timeline.
Morris's agenda appears to be to keep the project moving. She indicates that she really isn't terribly interested in Wood's input. She is using her power over Wood and Johnson to keep the timeline in place.
In reviewing Wood's request for more time, the interests and obligations of each of the players can be brought out. Wood's feedback from Morris indicates that his rubber stamp is all that is really required. This feedback comes from her verbal statements as well as the fact that she expects him to read the manuscript in a very short time period. Wood has to weigh doing what seems to be best for himself and the student against displeasing his chairperson.
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Wood decides to risk alienating Morris by insisting on more time to review the manuscript. In Part 2, he is again in the position of having to question Morris. In deciding how Wood should handle the dilemma of the prospectus meeting, he must carefully examine the benefits and potential harm to those involved.
While Johnson may feel that she will benefit from proceeding immediately, Wood is considering how the student can move forward into the study when she appears to be so uncertain of what she is doing. She will be responsible for implementing the methods and analysis and will again be under the gun when she must defend her thesis. The easy choice for Wood might be to simply allow Johnson to proceed. After all, Morris is pushing for that and she will ultimately be Johnson's adviser on the project. If Wood were to think only of himself, his choice might to be to sign off on the project.
Morris may potentially benefit from allowing Johnson to proceed if the project is completed in accordance with her timeline. The case does not specify a reason for her adherence to the timeline so we might speculate as to why she seems so insistent. Perhaps she has intrinsic reasons in wanting to finish the project in order to make a presentation or to submit a publication. Despite her tenure status, these considerations may be affecting her behavior. A more extrinsic reason might be that she wants Johnson to graduate on time and feels that holding the project back will delay that. We can only speculate as to why Dr. Story appears willing to sign off on the project following the prospectus meeting. We do know that she and Morris are friends and collaborators on research projects. Is this relationship or the desire not to make waves enough reason to approve the project?
This portion of the case can be used to discuss Muskavitch's comment that "In the real world, people almost never have all the information they would like before they must make a decision concerning what to do next." (p. 3).
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In discussing the decision facing Wood, it is also useful to examine the potential harm that could come from his approving the project when he does not feel that the student has adequate knowledge. It is easy to contemplate many problems that could arise from Johnson being allowed to go forward with a project she does not seem to understand. She could struggle during the entire project or receive just enough help to complete it and then fail in her thesis defense. In addition to the obvious disservice to this student's effort to learn the research process, Morris's modeling of poor ethical choices is also potentially harmful to Johnson. According to Vesilind, "Students have their ethical antennae up. If we fail them, they will be poorly served by higher education." (Vesilind, 2000, p.170) If our goals in higher education are for students to learn from us, then we must realize that they will learn from all we do, not just those behaviors that we choose.
Another point to consider is the possibility that Johnson will be allowed to proceed without really understanding the project and Morris will somehow manage to get her through the project. At some point, Johnson may come to realize that she did not obtain the degree or complete the thesis on her own, but rather that she was allowed to slide through for the sake of convenience. If this realization were to occur, Johnson's accomplishment would be diminished in her own eyes. (Vesilind, 2000)
Wood's reputation, as well as those of the other committee members, could be at stake if they sign off on a project in which the student is inadequately prepared. The student's education and perhaps, her future research career could be jeopardized by this action. In discussing relationships in research labs, Weil and Arzbaecher describe the three major goals of research groups as "(1) to get research done; (2) to get students trained; and (3) to acquire the funding needed to achieve the first two goals." (Weil and Arzbaecher, 1995, p. 73) Morris may have acted to sacrifice the second of these goals in order to accomplish the first and possibly the third. This point may lead to a discussion of the ways in which these goals can be balanced appropriately and how unethical behavior is sometimes reinforced (i.e., through publications, tenure and promotions). The fact that many pressures can be alleviated by unethical behavior is important. People who may generally be ethical and honest may chose a different path when faced with these pressures.
Another factor to consider is possible harm to subjects involved in the study. If Johnson were allowed to see or evaluate subjects without adequate knowledge of the procedures, these subjects could be at risk. In general, if this worst-case scenario were applied, it is possible that the lack of knowledge on the student's part could tarnish the reputation of everyone involved in the project.
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