Some Words to the Wise about Misconduct Investigations

In 1991, the University of South Florida (USF) developed an 8-page policy for responding to allegations of research misconduct. In 1996, USF used the policy for the first time in responding to two allegations: one on plagiarism; the other on falsification of data. At a research misconduct workshop held at the University of Florida, co-sponsored by ORI, Camille A. McWhirter, Assistant General Counsel for Health Affairs, USF, presented the lessons learned in interpreting the gaps in that policy while applying it to the "incredibly emotional experience that the review process turned out to be." A summary follows:

The purpose of the review process is to substantiate or refute the allegation. If the alleged facts are true, the motive of the accuser is irrelevant. Each allegation must be considered separately from the character, position or reputation of the person bringing the charge.

An allegation of research misconduct may be one of the most stressful events the accused person will ever face. Stress can be alleviated by clearly explaining the procedures that will apply, the confidentiality measures that will be taken, and the expected length of the review. Periodic updates on the progress of the investigation are helpful. Be friendly and cordial but do not become a friend or confidante of the accused or the accuser. The success of the investigation panel will depend on having the right persons with the right expectations. Include a member from outside the university on the investigation panel for credibility, a member from the department of the accused, and a member from elsewhere in the university. Selection should be based on scholarly achievement and reputations for unquestioned personal integrity. Scholarly achievement without the balance of temperament suitable to this task can scuttle the whole process.

Panel members will have no idea what a stressful, difficult, time-consuming and thankless task they have undertaken. Convey the seriousness of the task, the time it can take, their liability and protections as panel members, the meaning of intent and standards of proof, the importance of being thoughtful and objective, the need for confidentiality, the role of legal counsel, the availability of support staff, the collection of evidence, the requirements of a good and adequate final report, and what will happen to the report after the process ends. A good panel will become righteously indignant if their findings are questioned or changed without the opportunity for input.

Insulate the panel from any administrative influence and ex parte communications with the parties. It is crucial to maintain the integrity of the review process and avoid any appearance of institutional influence over the panel's deliberations or decision-making.

Present a clear charge to the panel and a precise statement of the scope of the review or issues to be resolved. Otherwise the panel will not ask the right questions, will omit relevant avenues of inquiry and may pursue irrelevant ones. The result will be a directionless inquiry with meaningless conclusions.

Have procedures in place for securing original documents, biological specimens, lab notebooks, research and financial records and other items that could be altered, lost, or destroyed. This delicate and intrusive process will be stressful for the respondent and the institution. Explain to the respondent why these steps are necessary for his or her own protection, and allow the respondent to have copies of records needed so that the work is not interrupted.

Discourage or prohibit the use of e-mail for transmitting information concerning the substance of the case and especially drafts of reports.

Source URL: https://ori.hhs.gov/some-words-wise-about-misconduct-investigations