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The following comment refers to this/these guideline(s)

Guideline 4

Responsibility of the heads of research work units

The head of a research work unit is responsible for the entire unit. Collaboration within the unit is designed such that the group as a whole can perform its tasks, the necessary cooperation and coordination can be achieved, and all members understand their roles, rights and duties. The leadership role includes ensuring adequate individual supervision of early career researchers, integrated in the overall institutional policy, as well as career development for researchers and research support staff. Suitable organisational measures are in place at the level of the individual unit and of the leadership of the institution to prevent the abuse of power and exploitation of dependent relationships.


The size and the organisation of the unit are designed to allow leadership tasks, particularly skills training, research support and supervisory duties, to be performed appropriately. The performance of leadership tasks is associated with a corresponding responsibility. Researchers and research support staff benefit from a balance of support and personal responsibility appropriate to their career level. They are given adequate status with corresponding rights of participation. Through gradually increasing autonomy, they are empowered to shape their career.

Guideline 10

Legal and ethical frameworks, usage rights

Researchers adopt a responsible approach to the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of research. They comply with rights and obligations, particularly those arising from legal requirements and contracts with third parties, and where necessary seek approvals and ethics statements and present these when required. With regard to research projects, the potential consequences of the research should be evaluated in detail and the ethical aspects should be assessed. The legal framework of a research project includes documented agreements on usage rights relating to data and results generated by the project.


Researchers maintain a continual awareness of the risks associated with the misuse of research results. Their responsibility is not limited to compliance with legal requirements but also includes an obligation to use their knowledge, experience and skills such that risks can be recognised, assessed and evaluated. They pay particular attention to the aspects associated with security-relevant research (dual use). HEIs and non-HEI research institutions are responsible for ensuring that their members’ and employees’ actions comply with regulations and promote this through suitable organisational structures. They develop binding ethical guidance and policies and define procedures to assess ethical issues relating to research projects.

Where possible and practicable, researchers conclude documented agreements on usage rights at the earliest possible point in a research project. Documented agreements are especially useful when multiple academic and/or non-academic institutions are involved in a research project or when it is likely that a researcher will move to a different institution and continue using the data he or she generated for his or her own research purposes. In particular, the researcher who collected the data is entitled to use them. During a research project, those entitled to use the data decide whether third parties should have access to them (subject to data protection regulations).

Supervision during the early stages of an academic career

How students, doctoral researchers and newly qualified postdocs are supervised and supported in their career development varies according to their career stage. Good supervision mainly consists of

  • regular talks and
  • career advice.

It also includes giving the individual concerned the freedom to develop of their own accord and try things out. Working through checklists is not what is required here: good supervision should embrace an attitude that offers support and empowerment while doing justice to individual needs. While in some cases close guidance may be necessary at least some of the time, in others it may be necessary to provide more room for manoeuvre. In any case it is important to emphasise transparency, ensuring that both supervisor and supervisee take their share of responsibility and treat each other with respect.

In the doctoral phase in particular supervision is best provided based on a supervision agreement with defined contact persons and a clear-cut definition of goals, roles, rights and responsibilities. Depending in part on the respective discipline, the agreement might state the following:

  • how often meetings are held (in person),
  • when draft texts are to be presented, read and discussed,
  • which milestones are to be achieved and by when,
  • who holds usage rights to the research data,
  • what happens if one of those involved leaves the higher education institution or non-HEI research institution,
  • how authorship is regulated,
  • which qualification measures are to be taken and when, etc.

It is a good idea to define the rights and responsibilities of all those involved so that everyone can refer back to them. Supervision agreements are important in establishing rights, especially for doctoral researchers. This helps when difficulties or conflicts arise. In any case, supervision is always based on reciprocity: supervisors should also be able to say whether they are satisfied.

  • Regardless of the specific involvement of doctoral researchers in research operations, they should have sufficient time and opportunity to complete their doctorate and participate in additional qualification measures.
  • Joint supervision by two professors or an advisory committee is a good way to ensure optimum supervision at all times, even in difficult and contentious situations or when one supervisor is absent. The supervision committee should also include external supervisors.
  • Supervisors are role models, and further training can help less experienced supervisors be effective here.
  • Wherever possible, the supervision and funding of a doctoral researcher should be kept separate. This is another reason why joint supervision may be advisable.
  • Supervisors should only take on as many doctoral researchers as they can adequately supervise. They should assess the dissertation as swiftly as possible. The duration of doctorate studies should be reasonable and take into account the culture of the specific subject.
  • Scientific or scholarly societies should agree on what is meant by “good supervision” in their respective subject areas, determining which aspects are to be passed on by experienced researchers to less experienced ones and which practices are to be included in the training canon (e.g. good research design).
  • In addition to supervision itself, mentoring schemes should be provided for individual support in career development involving experienced individuals from the academic setting or from other fields. Mentoring programmes also support junior research group leaders in setting up and leading their own research group as well as becoming established in their discipline at the institution concerned.
  • It helps if institutions adopt doctoral guidelines or directives with regard to doctoral researchers and postdocs, as is already the case at some higher education institutions or non-HEI research institutions.

The comment belongs to the following categories:

GL4 (General) , GL10 (General)