Research integrity

Mentorship and supervision of early stage researchers and post-doctoral investigators

A mentor is someone who places a special effort in helping another develop into a competent and successful professional.

Research training is typically a complex, long-term developmental process. Under the supervision of experienced researchers, trainees gradually progress from initially undertaking task-oriented activities to becoming independent investigators with increasing competence in all aspects of the scientific process. This support, under the form of mentoring, can dramatically reduce the learning curve for someone new to a field or a profession. Mentoring is influential for one's early career in establishing competence in the many roles to be fulfilled, but also in future development. Mentoring is recognised as the social foundation of research.

Mentor­trainee relationships are based on the establishment of a working relationship between an experienced and a less experienced researcher. Each brings to varying levels something in the relationship. The experienced researcher will have knowledge and skills that the inexperienced researcher wishes to learn and might provide financial support for the trainee’s research, education and livelihood. On the other hand, inexperienced researchers at various stages of development, i.e. undergraduate or doctoral students, post-docs, research staff, or junior researchers, provide fresh mind-sets and of course, labour.

While the role of a mentor is theoretically different from that of a supervisor or adviser, these formal academic roles frequently develop into a mentoring relationship. A mentor is in fact, at the same time an adviser, teacher, role model, and an advocate of the trainee when necessary.

The goal of these guidelines is not to indicate an ideal path to mentorship or to suggest specific techniques or approaches. There are in fact, many dependable sources that can be drawn upon for specific advice (Lee et al., 2017; Pain, 2012). Furthermore, while it is acknowledged that each mentor will have their own strengths and weaknesses, style and inclinations, the OSR assumes that each one will act with a strong sense of responsibility and commitment to the future of the trainee. The aim of the present guidelines on mentorship is rather to provide an outline of what is expected of a mentor with respect to RCR, and what should be avoided. Of relevance are the results of a recent study (Bouter et al.) finding that even more than outright fraud (which remains a very rare occurrence), inadequate mentoring of junior co-workers appears to be one of the most negatively impactful misbehaviours in science. Other studies have reported (Anderson, 1996) that RM occurs more often in those departments in which the climate favours fierce competition and discourages collaboration and openness, and least often where students feel that their mentors, or others, provide useful feedback and evaluation. In conclusion, there is good reason to endorse the view that the risk of RM is diminished in environments in which good mentoring is provided.

OSR commits to recognising good mentorship practices by making an effort to include them in internal promotion and external recruiting decisions.

General indications

It might be useful here to remind ourselves that Doctoral students and Post-Doctoral Investigators who of course significantly contribute to the advancement their groups’ research, are nevertheless persons-in-training. They should undergo personal development planning with their mentors and mentors should not shy away from discussing exit strategies. However much one wants a trainee to work on a specific project and with a high level of commitment, sometimes a mentor should honestly and unselfishly recognise that not everybody wants to be a group leader, and some have skills that would make them better suited to other occupations. Therefore, trainees should be helped in making decisions about alternative career directions early enough in their research training. Preferably, a doctoral trainee should have the opportunity to discuss their studies with a third party – someone other than their direct supervisor - to obtain independent support.