Administrators and the Responsible Conduct of Research
Retention of Data

Retention of Data

One of the most difficult issues involved in the retention of data is knowing how long the data must be retained. In discussing retention requirements, one often hears that institutions must retain records on federal awards “for three years”. There is just enough truth in that statement to get one into serious trouble. The key question is “three years from when?” OMB Circular A-110 states that the retention period is three years from the date the final financial report is submitted. NIH includes that requirement in its Grants Policy Statement. On the other hand, NSF states in its General Grant Conditions (2005) that records must be retained for three years after the submission of all required reports (research and other special reports). This could mean that if the final project report were submitted a month after the expiration date of a grant, but a special required report was submitted two months after the final project report, then the project records must be retained for three years after submission of the special report, rather than the expiration date or submission of the final project report. Therefore, one should check the record retention requirements for each sponsor that funds projects with which one is involved.

There may also be special requirements depending on the issue involved. For instance, in the case of research misconduct involving NIH funding, records must be retained for six years after the final resolution date of the case. As noted previously, it is also important to retain research data pertinent to patented inventions for the life of the patent in case the patent is challenged or if lawsuits should arise.

Another difficult issue involved in data retention is that of data storage and who is responsible for managing the storage. Physical data storage is becoming increasingly manageable as more and more data is recorded in digital, rather than, paper form. At the same time, the issue remains important. Remember, most institutions regard the researcher as the appropriate steward of the research data. At the end of a project, however, the institution has the responsibility to provide adequate storage capacity. A related issue may arise over whether the researcher wants the institution to store the research data or whether the researcher wishes to retain the data in his/her office, laboratory, or other convenient location. Whatever the case may be, the researcher must recognize that the institution has the right of access to the data collected and generated under sponsored projects.

Finally, should a researcher leave the institution, the institution and researcher should come to agreement over whether the researcher may take the original data or an identical copy of the data. If the researcher takes the original data, a copy must be left at the institution. In addition, the researcher must agree to retain the original data for the required retention period and to provide access to the original data to the institution as well as other individuals or entities having a legitimate need for access. The latter would primarily be related to lawsuits, intellectual property disputes, and cases of research misconduct in which access to the original data is not just preferred, but required.

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