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Tips for Handling Physical Evidence in Research Misconduct Cases

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This is the second of two articles on the importance of evidence management in misconduct cases. The first article, "Tips for Sequestration of Physical Evidence in Scientific Misconduct Cases" appeared in the December 1998 ORI Newsletter. These articles are intended to provide suggestions on the sequestration of data that will be useful to institutions conducting misconduct inquiries and investigations.

As indicated in the earlier article, if evidence is not sequestered systematically or promptly, with an identifiable chain of custody, the integrity of the evidence can be questioned, creating avoidable complications in misconduct cases. Attention to detail is vital and it is better to secure more, rather than less, evidence and corroborating information. Proper evidence management protects the research and all those involved.

This article covers the completion of the sequestration of physical evidence, and the post-sequestration phase.

After collecting the evidence, place it in secure site(s), check it immediately against the custody forms, and arrange for access to the evidence only under close supervision, so the evidence is not altered in any way.

Have knowledgeable staff prepare a more detailed inventory of the most pertinent items.

Ask the respondent to suggest what evidence may be essential for the continued functioning of the research unit. Decide how and when copies or samples of this material can be provided for the ongoing research.

Arrange for the committee, respondent, and appropriate witnesses to have access to the detailed inventory and copies of pertinent evidence.

Arrange for preparation of clear "working copies" of the most important evidence. The working copies are conforming copies, which include all elements on the sheet from margin to margin, any covered elements, and with the reverse checked and copied if informative. On the "master copy," add investigative labels for each notebook, folder, chart, etc., and add numbers to each page along with annotations of any relevant observations, such as whether an item is original handwriting or a photocopy. Provide working copies to the committee, respondent, experts, and portions as appropriate to witnesses to ensure accurate and easy communication about the evidence and to reduce handling of the original evidence. As the committee organizes the issues and new items of evidence become relevant to the investigation, continue to make working copies.

During the inquiry and investigation processes, use the working copies whenever possible. During interviews, ORI usually has the original evidence available, but, whenever possible, uses the working copies to identify exhibits, point out features, etc. The original evidence is handled at all times by a designated custodian, who confirms the exhibit cites.

As the investigation proceeds, develop the collateral and comparison evidence in the same manner.

Make provision for analyses of the evidence under custody. Routine analyses include a detailed inventory of the various locations of experimental records linked to each questioned claim as explained below. A time line of events is very helpful in understanding the availability of experimental factors, etc. Forensic document and biological analyses may be conducted by experts, and expert statistical analyses are frequently very helpful.

Develop all evidence from computers. Use an expert to secure the information from computer CPUs or physically secure the CPUs directly. Check for and secure all system backups. Have an expert use a program to look for erased evidence.

Develop a series of indices to link important items of evidence by their label and page. One essential index is the chart which displays the location of each questioned claim (e.g., figure panel, text cite), the sample sources (animals, patients, etc.), the experimental protocols, the samples used, the raw experimental data, laboratory data summaries, and various versions of results claimed. Some institutions have found that an experienced senior scientist may be able to develop such indices and perform some of the routine analyses described earlier in preparing for the work of the committee.

Using the chart which indexes the locations of the physical evidence and the evidence labeled and paginated on working copies, it is easy to link the findings about each questioned claim to the evidence during the committee deliberations and to carry cites into the final report and any following proceedings. At ORI, we copy or scan in the pertinent evidence into the report at the appropriate place.

Retain the evidence in custody until all PHS actions are complete. ORI may request copies of the relevant evidence, if not already appended to the report, and it may be necessary to turn over custody of the original evidence to Federal officials. In that case, the custodian should be prepared with custody documentation and testimony.

When notified of completion of the final PHS action, return the evidence to the proper individual and obtain a receipt for its return.