The audit trail

Record keeping is fundamental to research – and to research supervision.  Supervisors often resist student-record-keeping as mindless bureaucracy, but a clear audit trail is an invaluable tool.

Why does it matter?  

1. Communication contributes to prevention:  Keeping a clear audit trail can help surface issues early and can help students understand what’s important.

2. Protection – of you, the institution, the student:  When problems do arise, the audit trail is a key line of defence – and basis for clarification.

So there are ‘two sides to the coin’: the audit trail can help both in avoiding major obstacles – and handling them if they do arise. 

Many supervisors don’t understand the value of the audit trail until there’s a problem (often exacerbated by the lack of an audit trail).  A common student response when issues come to a head is ‘No one ever told me’.  Without an audit trail, it’s the supervisor’s word against the student’s.  With an audit trail, the supervisors can point to the notes of the meeting(s) or the emails in which that information was communicated.  But reconstructing an audit trail after-the-fact is challenging, if not impossible.  Much easier to establish a simple habit of updating the records as things happen.

Note that crying ‘No one ever told me’ isn’t always manipulative.  Sometimes, people just don’t ‘register’ what they’ve been told, because their attention is elsewhere, or they don’t realise its importance.  Keeping an audit trail – and documenting issues explicitly in progress reports – also helps communicate concerns that might be overlooked in oral communication, and conveys their priority.

So, the audit trail is an important communication tool, assisting with:  disambiguation (this is a good reason for having students write the meeting notes – so that mis-communications can be detected promptly); problem solving (helping to keep track of the sequence of actions and challenges, in order to identify gaps or slips); reassurance (acknowledging good progress, highlighting what ‘good enough’ looks like, and providing fuel for reflection).

What to include in the audit trail?  Ideally, the record should reflect the richness of the supervisory interactions, including key discussions, decisions, and achievements that contribute to the ‘student journey’.  Include (for example):

  • supervisory meeting notes
  • agreed actions (with deadlines)
  • milestones reached (e.g., actions in the project plan, publications, presentations, training…)
  • concerns raised (with dates, and how /when they are resolved)
  • support offered (some supervisors keep a regular log of meetings/contact)
  • training offered/completed
  • travel 
  • attendance if relevant (e.g., to meet visa requirements)

Some universities have online systems to support record-keeping.  But the value depends on the quality of the notes, which need to be appropriate and frank – ‘tough love’ applies here.

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