I see questions on this site that describe extremely unethical behavior by professors (e.g., not giving a student authorship when it is obviously warranted). I've also seen some behavior of this kind firsthand (not by my own advisor, thankfully), and realize that many of the perpetrators are "repeat offenders."

Often the object of the unethical behavior is a student/advisee, for whom it may not be personally beneficial to lodge a formal complaint. (The student, understandably, does not want to do anything that will jeopardize graduation, reference letters, etc.)

Given that many students won't go on the record about unethical behavior by a professor or advisor, how do academic departments and universities find out about these incidents? (Do they?) What do they do to prevent the offenders from doing it again?

I am not asking about actual university regulations, since I am specifically interested in cases where no formal complaint is made. Rather, I am asking what practical action one could take (e.g.as a faculty member of the same department, a dept chair, a dean of some kind) to

  • Become aware of the incidents (dept gossip is the only way I know about, is there a better way?)
  • Officially or unofficially try to stop it from happening again

For example, I know that in my own department, I will warn prospective students of an unethical advisor. I am a student though; I imagine this would be inappropriate for a faculty member.

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    This an extremely broad question. You are essentially inquiring into university regulations...which, much more so than academic ethics, are highly variable from university to university. Could you narrow down your question and/or explain why an answer would be specifically helpful to you? Feb 19, 2014 at 7:40
  • If you're angling for someone to say that it's hard for unethical faculty behavior to be adequately detected and addressed in a systematic way: I'll say that. The following example took place while I was an undergraduate at that university, and I remember thinking even at the time that the "punishment" was both strange and strangely light: articles.chicagotribune.com/1996-06-16/news/…. (However, if you google this professor's name almost 20 years later, "plagiarism" still comes up prominently. That's not a bad punishment...) Feb 19, 2014 at 7:49
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    @PeteL.Clark That is an insane story - and in that case, the student pressed the issue. When there are no formal charges (and even if there are, if they don't get media attention), there isn't even a Google record :(
    – ff524
    Feb 19, 2014 at 8:04
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    You seem to assume that the department has any amount of leverage on professors. That may not be the case at all. In Germany, (university) professors are civil servants and can thus not be fired without outrageous cause and under no circumstance by the department. Furthermore, money flow through the department is next to non-existent in many places (professors apply for their own third-party funding) so there is no angle there, either.
    – Raphael
    Feb 19, 2014 at 9:57
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    I imagine [warning a student away from an unethical advisor] would be inappropriate for a faculty member.Quite the opposite! If I know that one of my faculty colleagues persistently acts unethically toward their students, I'm obliged to warn students away from them. (And I have done so.) My ethical duty to the students outweighs any filial obligation to my colleagues.
    – JeffE
    Feb 28, 2014 at 0:54

1 Answer 1


The main problem as I have experienced it is hearsay vs. facts. By hearsay, I mean rumours or coffee-table talk and the like. The university and departments can do a lot but not on hearsay. I know of one case where all PhD students finish and then distance themselves for life to the advisor. If one of them had made a formal complaint, things would have been easy but no-one has. In this case the department has behind the scenes "decided" not to grant the person any more graduate students. I am sure many who read this can see that it is highly unsatisfactory "punishment" since it is all happening behind the scenes, but without official complaints there are no other ways to go.

To widen the perspective a little. When it comes to discrimination due to sex and ethnicity the situation is different, there not much is needed for action. A person can be unfairly branded by almost anything regardless if any evidence exist (such as a student unsatisfied with grades and eager for revenge accuses someone for -ism). In such cases, we, rightly, have the approach no smoke without a fire. Unfortunately the other types of misbehaviours are not generally acknowledged as problems of similar dignity and so a wealth of hard evidence is required and lost of benefit of doubt exists in the process.

So although much can be done, many cases go on for long periods due to lack of hard facts. Sometimes problems are taken care of behind the scenes but these cases can drag on for very long periods. The fact that they are handled behind the scenes does not carry legal certainty and can be a problem by themselves. So clearly problems exist but the processes of "pressing charges" are unclear and uncertain. So to cap off, it is a legally tricky situation where anything but an open process carries unsatisfactory issues.

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    Thanks, this is a useful answer. How does a department "not grant" the person students - if he has his own grant money and there are no formal complaints, isn't he free to recruit his own students?
    – ff524
    Feb 19, 2014 at 8:07
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    @ff524: Even if you have a tenured position, the university can simply not let students choose you as their advisor. Recruiting students won't help if the university won't admit them or won't let them switch their advisor to you. In practice people in this situation wouldn't even try to recruit students, to avoid embarrassment, but if they did the students would be told something like "Sorry, this faculty member is not allowed to supervise graduate students" when they tried to file the paperwork. Feb 19, 2014 at 15:49
  • "can do a lot but not on hearsay" which I think is a very sane and healthy approach. After all there has to be some balance that also ensures that rumours that are just rumours spread in order to harm someone cannot do too much damage. Mar 4, 2014 at 17:32
  • What to do against the lack of facts is IMHO another question. Personally, I've been in a situation where I suspected that someone was subject to unethical behaviour by so else. I took the suspected victim aside and asked directly whether there are issues (fortunately it turned out that things were all right). I think this can help in several ways: because not directly involved, an intermediate can save the student's anonymity (at least until a stage of investigations where the student can be reasonably sure this won't backfire on him/her). ... Mar 4, 2014 at 17:39
  • ... For raising concerns with the department positively knowing of issues is a much stronger position than just suspecting something because some rumour came along or something looks fishy seen from the outside. Mar 4, 2014 at 17:46

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