Tips for Sequestration of Physical Evidence in Research Misconduct Cases
This is the first of several articles on the importance of evidence management in misconduct cases. It is intended to provide some suggestions on the sequestration of data that will be useful to institutions conducting misconduct inquiries and investigations.
Experience has shown that prompt and complete sequestration of physical evidence is vital for resolving misconduct allegations. 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 those involved.
First, know and understand the authorities which permit sequestration of evidence. According to PHS grant policy, data and any products generated under a grant or cooperative agreement belong to the grantee institution, not the principal investigator.
Prepare the formal notification to the respondent about the inquiry. Notification should identify the applicable authorities, the nature of the allegations, the process to be followed, and the rights of the respondent.
Data sequestration should take place concurrent with notification. As soon as the allegation has been assessed, determine the supervisory authority over the individuals from whom evidence is to be secured. Consult with legal counsel for the institution about the proper institutional procedures to follow. Confidentially arrange with the supervisor for contact with the respondent and for access to the data and related evidence. Decide the best circumstances to meet the needs to protect the integrity of the evidence and provide for discreet, confidential, timely, and efficient sequestration. It is also generally helpful to have the supervisor accompany the official who is authorized to sequester the data and evidence.
Assemble staff who will assist you. Prepare lists of items to be secured. If appropriate, identify an "expert" who understands the nature of the research and the laboratory setting, and ask this expert to identify the possible types and sources of evidence to be secured. Collateral evidence, such as centrifuge logs, order forms, telephone notes, and examples of comparison information should be gathered at the same time. Decide who will accompany and receive material from each staff member and where the evidence will be stored. Ask the respondent to cooperate with officials and identify all potential evidence at this time. Emphasize that evidence offered later in the process may be given less weight.
Keep track of all records and evidence. Use custody forms, labels, markers, folders, envelopes and other containers, computer equipment, disks, tapes, etc. For notebooks, folders, etc., count the number of pages and make sure each page has a unique identifier. It is generally wise to inventory sequestered documents. The authorizing official should sign each receipt and request that the respondent countersign. The official should also provide copies of the receipt forms to the respondent. The respondent should be assured access to the research records under supervision or copies of records necessary to continue research projects during the period the original evidence is sequestered.
Read second article - Tips for Handling Physical Evidence in Research Misconduct Cases