Research misconduct inquiries and investigations are conducted by committees appointed by an institution’s research integrity officer. The committee members are typically scientists, not lawyers. Not only must they analyze the science in question, but they also must ensure that the institution meets all of its obligations under both the institution’s misconduct policy as well as federal regulations (if the research is federally funded.) Sometimes an institution will appoint committee members from outside the institution conducting the inquiry and investigation, but it is not required to do so.
As a result, the committee members investigating the allegations may well be colleagues of the accused scientist. Committee members cannot serve, however, where they are biased or have a conflict of interest. A scientist has the right to object to the appointment of prospective committee members due to bias or conflict of interest. It is the responsibility of the research integrity officer to resolve the objection and decide whether the particular member may or may not serve. To avoid the potential objection to a committee member but still choose members from within the institution, an institution will likely look beyond the scientist’s department. While doing so may reduce the chance of an objection based on bias or conflict of interest, it may lead to an objection based on lack of expertise. Depending on the allegation(s), it may be crucial that the committee members understand the underlying science or that they be members of the same scientific community. Sometimes, it is necessary that the institute add an outside expert in the relevant scientific field.
One of the elements for a research misconduct finding is that the respondent’s actions are “a significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community.” Compiling a committee who belong to the same “relevant research community,” will help the committee evaluate this element. On the other hand, it may increase the likelihood that the scientist will know the committee members and perhaps the likelihood that the scientist would have a basis to object based on conflict of interest or bias. If the committee members are not familiar with the relevant research community, the scientist must provide a good explanation of the practices within the relevant research community.
Paul S. Thaler is the Managing Partner in the Firm’s Washington, D.C. office, co-chair of the Internal Investigations Group, and a member of the ADR and Commercial Litigation Groups.
Christopher D. Carusone is a Partner in the Firm’s Harrisburg office, where he serves as Chair of the Firm’s Government Law & Regulatory Affairs and Energy & Utilities Groups, as well as Co-Chair of the Internal Investigations Group.
Karen S. Karas is Senior Counsel in the Firm’s Washington, D.C. Office and is a member of the Commercial Litigation and Internal Investigation Groups.