The Ethics of Academic Supervision and Mentoring

On September 10th, 2021, Fordham University’s Celia Fisher, Ph.D. presented on her expertise in the ethics of supervision in the webinar titled, “Ethics in Supervision,” hosted by the Association of Ethics in Academia in Yalova Üniversitesi of Turkey. Celia Fisher, Professor of Psychology, Marie Ward Doty University Chair in Ethics, and Director of the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education and HIV/Drug Abuse Prevention Research Ethics Training Institute, discussed the importance and role of both ethics in teaching within the development of science and scientific studies, as well as the ethics of academic supervision.

The Importance of Ethics Teaching and Training in the Sciences

According to Dr. Fisher, academics play an important role in providing citizens and researchers with the knowledge and skills for “critical and compassionate engagement in creating a caring and just world.” Professors introduce students and research trainees, as well as non-scientist citizens, to the moral foundations of science as a method and profession through teaching and “modeling behavior.” Fisher explains further that professors are obligated to establish loyal and trusting relationships with the students, institutions, and members of society who rely on them for knowledge, skills, and opportunities. Thus, with respect to the development of lectures, research labs, and supervisory experiences, professors must “infuse them with the ethics of [their] particular field,” including relevant ethical standards.

Ethics of Supervision: Supervisor and Student Relations

“A supervisor has to demonstrate a commitment to ethical conduct…not only in terms of how they conduct their research, but also, how they conduct their supervision,” Fisher explains. In terms of physical and biological sciences, she recommends ethical practices such as taking accurate notes and not modifying material or data to fit hypotheses, as well as appropriate care for animal subjects. Ethical conduct in the social sciences, Fisher continues, looks like demonstrating respect for human participants through informed consent and through a study design that minimizes risk and maximizes benefit. Additionally, Fisher says, professors and research supervisors must take “responsibility for mistakes that are made” and demonstrate the skills necessary to correct them to their research team. Lastly, she recommends establishing a “timely and specific process for providing guidance and feedback to students and supervisees.”

Ethical Supervision of Student Dissertation

A supervisor’s role changes during the course of a student’s dissertation process, according to Fisher. Supervisors are expected to “assess the extent to which the student has the capacity to become an independent scientist” through evaluations and recommendations, Fisher explains. With respect to leadership roles in the dissertation process, Fisher says, the mentor or supervisor may initially take a leadership or co-equal role in study design and help guide study implementation and analysis, but the leadership role “needs to change” such that by the end of the study or work, the student demonstrates their intellectual and scientific ability. In order to for mentors to ensure a successful dissertation, Fisher recommends setting specific guidelines with students including indicating how may drafts are acceptable, how often feedback will be provided, time frames, and standards for analysis and interpretation.

Supervisors or mentors are “responsible for ensuring that [students are] aware of ethical standards of the field” through direct instruction and modeling to prevent ethical violations of students, Fisher continues. Ethics should be discussed with students beyond submission to an ethics review board, such as an institutional review board (IRB). Some common ethical violations include plagiarism, fabrication of data, and not following human subjects protections, and mentors are responsible to report this information to the department, she says. With respect to plagiarism, which Fisher notes can be intentional or unintentional, Dr. Fisher recommended software that analyzes students’ papers against other articles or documents on the Internet, and gives users what percentage of their paper may be plagiarized.

Finally, Dr. Fisher provides two situations in which it may be appropriate for a faculty member or mentor to resign or step down from a supervisor position of a student’s dissertation. First, mentors may need to resign if they do not have the expertise that is needed for the dissertation including the theoretical background or methods. The second situation is related to the mentor and student relationship. Fisher explains that supervision is a bidirectional, “relational process” involving respectful consideration from both the mentor and student. If the relationship is not working and causes stress, programs are responsible for finding a more appropriate supervisor for the student’s dissertation.

Watch the full webinar below or visit

Celia B. Fisher, Ph.D. is the Fordham University Marie Ward Doty University Chair in Ethics and Director of the Center for Ethics Education and the HIV and Drug Abuse Prevention Research Ethics Training Institute. Fisher’s Decoding the Ethics Code: A Practical Guide for Psychologist, is now in its fourth edition from Sage Publications.

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