The place of ethics in guidance

The guidance relationship comes about in order to help the advisee in their work on a particular project. Whether or not the guidance is successful will ultimately be a question of whether the advisee succeeds. This also applies from the point of view of the advisor: the focus of the guidance is on the best interests of the advisee. It could therefore be said that the guidance in itself represents an ethical challenge (Eide, Grelland, Kristiansen, Sævareid and Aasland 2008).

The focus of the guidance will be on the advisee's work. The guidance itself and the interaction with the advisor, who draws on their professional expertise, standing and interests, can help strengthen and further develop the work. However, this demands a form of reticence on the advisor's part, to give the advisee sufficient time and space for their own point of view to be elucidated and further developed, so that it may be advanced and not hindered by the advisor's own perspective.

As a general point of departure, we might say that the relationship between the advisee and the advisor is an asymmetrical one. The role of the advisor is linked to a professional position and guidance or mentoring skills, i.e. the expertise, competence and professional insight the advisee will be able to draw on and take advantage of in their work.

It will frequently be the case that, professionally speaking, the advisor will represent a different professional standing than that of the advisee, either in the form of general level of competence or expertise or a different speciality to that of the advisee. This asymmetry also implies that the advisor will possess a different authority to the advisee. Paragraph 33 of the Guidelines for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences, Law and the Humanities published by NESH warns against the authority of the supervisor being turned to their own advantage.

Where the guidance and supervision of students are concerned, the asymmetrical nature of the supervisory situation between the supervisor and the student is highlighted as a particular challenge and the guidelines warn against its abuse. Abuse refers to a situation in which the supervisor uses their authority to gain a personal or professional advantage. Warnings against offensive behaviour are also given. Inherent in these warnings is a requirement for the supervisor to have regard to the vulnerable situation of the student as a consequence of the supervisor's authority (NESH 2006).


A colleague is a peer and collegiality refers to the way in which peers should behave towards one another (Berulfsen and Gundersen 2003). Collegiality is usually associated with solidarity, respect and loyalty. This is an important theme in professional ethics, and indeed one that has also been the subject of much debate, because loyalty between colleagues can be at the expense of users or patients (Eide 2008). The Norwegian code of medical ethics has a paragraph about collegiality that deals specifically with guidance: "A doctor shall show colleagues and co-workers respect and shall help, advise and guide them" (Nylenna 1996:1059).

Within the research community as well, collegiality will be linked to loyalty, respect and solidarity; one speaks well of one's colleague's work and defends the colleague concerned. If criticism is directed from outside, collegiality may however prevent it from getting through because colleagues tend to close ranks and protect one another. In collegiality there may also be expectations that colleagues will facilitate and advance one another's careers. It can be difficult to judge when collegiality has been distorted into an abuse of power and trust that follows from position.

The particular challenges of collegial guidance

In collegial relationships, the asymmetry found in other advisor/advisee relationships, for example those in student guidance and supervision, will be less clear. As colleagues, individuals have a common professional platform, often in the form of a common education. Collegial relationships thus have symmetrical features. This may blur the boundaries between guidance and professional conversations between peers of equal standing, and so contribute to obscuring the responsibilities that rest on the advisor and the advisee.

Collegiality is associated with the notions of loyalty, respect and solidarity. Collegiality can help to establish expectations that the guidance provided by a colleague will be different and more well-disposed than guidance from another source. This can lead to a situation in which considerations other than the purely objective that are current in the specific project gain influence in the guidance process and threaten the professional standard of the work.

The subject of the guidance is work in progress, and this will involve the exposure and discussion in the guidance sessions of the weaknesses and strengths of the work, as well as the advisee's effort. This implies that the advisor will get to know other sides of the advisee than those the advisor is familiar with in normal student/colleague relationships. Normal collegial relationships imply a loyalty in the sense that caution is exercised with regard to what information is passed on. The guidance relationship itself and the fact that one gets to know other sides of a colleague than in a normal colleague relationship, implies a sharpening of the requirement that certain aspects of the guidance should remain between the advisor and the advisee.

Guidance and other elements of research ethics

What are the ethically relevant elements of the relationship between the advisor and the advisee vis-à-vis research ethics in general? As K.W. Ruyter points out in his introductory chapter to the book Forskningsetikk. Beskyttelse av enkeltpersoner og samfunn (2003: 17) [Research ethics. Protection of the individual and society], researchers have always had some way of regulating their own conduct; internal standards have been carved out of the very character of the research profession to ensure honesty and integrity among researchers – in order to protect research itself. These internal standards have however proved insufficient to protect the individuals and societies affected by the research. This has led to a greater emphasis on standards taken from outside of the field of research itself – standards with more general and, viewed in relation to the research field, more external characteristics.

Thus, the normative basis for research ethics has both an internal and external source.

These standards are applicable in the guidance process. The advisor has a responsibility to ensure that the project on which they are providing guidance is carried out so as to safeguard the interests of those who are affected by it. Furthermore, the advisor has a responsibility to ensure that integrity is maintained, which includes the advisor's own integrity in relation to the advisee and the advisee's research contribution.

The advisee's research interests will frequently overlap with the advisor's own interests. The findings and analyses made may therefore be of interest for the advisor's own work. If the advisee's work is to be used by the advisor before the work is completed, that must be expressly and specifically agreed. In that case, the general standards concerning references to sources will need to be applied. (See References and Co-authorship). Shared professional interests between the advisor and the advisee may also generate shared publications.

This article has been translated from Norwegian by Lesley Cawley, Akasie språktjenester AS.