Skip to main content

University Policy 56

Responding to Allegations of Research Misconduct

Initially approved: November 1, 1989
Revised January 1, 1994
Revised June 10, 1996
Revised August 25, 2008
Revised May 20, 2019
Revised March 19, 2024

Policy Topic:  Research and Sponsored Activities; Academic Affairs
Administering Office:  Academic Affairs

I. Policy Statement

Western Carolina University (WCU) is committed to maintaining the highest standards of scholarly integrity on the part of all members of the University community. It is the policy of the University that all scholarly activities be conducted in an ethical and legal manner.

This Policy is intended to carry out WCU’s responsibilities under the Public Health Service (PHS) Policies on Research Misconduct, 42 CFR Part 93, and outlines the process for evaluating and investigating allegations of research misconduct. All members of the University community have a personal responsibility to implement this policy with respect to any scholarly work in which they are engaged or about which they are knowledgeable. Failure to comply with this policy shall be handled according to procedures outlined below.

II. Definitions

Chief Research Officer (CRO)” is the senior executive responsible for the University’s research enterprise.

Complainant” is the individual reporting an allegation of research misconduct in good faith.

Deciding Official (DO)” is the WCU official responsible for deciding whether an investigation is warranted; reviewing the investigative committee report; making a final determination on the findings; and if research misconduct is found, deciding what, if any, institutional actions are appropriate. The DO is the Provost.

"Inquiry" is the preliminary information-gathering and fact-finding action to determine whether an allegation of misconduct warrants investigation.

"Investigation" is the formal gathering, examination, and evaluation of all relevant facts to determine whether an event of research misconduct has occurred, to identify the member(s) of the University community responsible, to determine the extent of adverse effects stemming from an event of misconduct, and to recommend corrective or punitive action to the Deciding Official.

"Member of the University Community" is any student, faculty member, administrator, staff member, affiliate, or employee of Western Carolina University.

Noncompliance” is any material failure to comply with federal, state, or local law or University policies, procedures, or other requirements affecting specific aspects of the conduct of research, such as, but not limited to, the protection of human subjects and the welfare of laboratory animals. 

Office of Research Integrity (ORI)” is the federal agency, organized within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, that oversees and directs U.S. Public Health Service’s research integrity activities.

Research” is defined as a systematic investigation, including research development, testing, and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge. 

Research Integrity Officer (RIO)” is the WCU employee who has administrative responsibility for implementation of this policy. The RIO is the Director of Research Compliance & Integrity or their designee and is responsible for 1) assessing allegations of research misconduct, 2) overseeing inquiries and investigations, 3) communicating with external entities as necessary, and 4) performing other responsibilities as described in this Policy. 

Research Misconduct” is fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism, as these terms are defined below, in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting the results, where the misconduct is committed intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly and is proven by a preponderance of the evidence. It does not include honest error or honest differences in opinion, interpretations, or judgements of data.

  • Fabrication” means making up data or results and recording or reporting them.
  • Falsification” means manipulating research materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record. The research record is the record of data or results that embody the facts resulting from the research inquiry and includes, but is not limited to research proposals, laboratory records, both physical and electronic, progress reports, abstracts, theses, or oral presentations, internal reports, books, dissertations, and journal articles.
  • Plagiarism” is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.

Respondent” is the individual against whom the allegation of research misconduct is made.

"Unethical behavior in research" is a breach of professional practices or ethical principles.

III. General Requirements: Inquiries, Investigations, and Reporting

A. Duty to Report

All members of the University community have a duty to report observed, suspected, or apparent research misconduct to the Research Integrity Officer (RIO), either orally or in writing. Any supervisor who receives an allegation from a direct report must immediately share the allegation with the RIO. If an individual is unsure whether a suspected incident falls within the definition of research misconduct, they may contact the RIO to discuss the suspected research misconduct informally, which may include discussing it anonymously or hypothetically. The RIO shall evaluate all allegations in accordance with Section IV. below. 

B. Confidentiality and Privacy

The confidentiality and privacy of those who report apparent research misconduct shall be protected to the maximum extent possible under the law.

To the extent possible, consistent with a fair and thorough investigation and as allowed by law, information about the identity of the respondent, complainants, and research subjects shall be limited to those individuals who have a need to know the information in the administration of this policy.

C. Suspension or Termination of Research During the Proceedings

If, at any time during the inquiry or investigation, sufficient evidence surfaces that warrants the termination of the research, the RIO will notify the Principal Investigator(s) of such action and request that the Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance and the CRO take appropriate action to protect the federal or other funds supporting that research.

The RIO shall take appropriate steps to inform any research sponsors of the investigation in accordance with applicable laws and regulations. Accused parties may be suspended from the research project in question if the RIO determines that serious harm could result from their continuance. Any such suspension shall not relate to other duties at the University.

D. Protection of Individuals Involved in Research Misconduct Proceedings

The University will undertake reasonable and practical efforts, as appropriate, to restore the reputations of the person(s) alleged to have engaged in misconduct when allegations are not confirmed. The University will be diligent in protecting the position and reputation of those persons who make allegations of research misconduct in good faith or serve as complainants in inquiries or investigations. Further, persons who make good faith allegations of research misconduct or serve as complainants, witnesses, and committee members shall not be subject to retaliation, intimidation, or any adverse employment action as a result of bringing an allegation or providing information under this Policy. 

Should the RIO determine that the allegation was maliciously motivated or made in bad faith, they shall refer the complainant to the appropriate body for potential disciplinary action in accordance with established University policies.

E. Interim Administrative Actions and Notification of ORI of Special Circumstances

Throughout the research misconduct proceeding, the RIO will review the situation to determine if there is any threat of harm to public health, federal funds and equipment, or the integrity of the PHS-supported research process. In the event of such a threat, the RIO shall, in consultation with the CRO and ORI, take appropriate interim action to protect against any such threat. Interim action may include additional monitoring of the research process and the handling of federal funds and equipment, reassignment of personnel or of the responsibility for the handling of federal funds and equipment, additional review of research data and results, or delaying publication. 

The RIO shall, at any time during a research misconduct proceeding, notify ORI immediately if they have reason to believe that any of the following conditions exist:

  1. Health or safety of the public is at risk, including an immediate need to protect human or animal subjects; 
  2. HHS resources or interests are threatened; 
  3. Research activities should be suspended; 
  4. There is a reasonable indication of possible violations of civil or criminal law; 
  5. Federal action is required to protect the interests of those involved in the research misconduct proceeding; 
  6. The research misconduct proceeding may be made public prematurely and HHS action may be necessary to safeguard evidence and protect the rights of those involved; or 
  7. The research community or public should be informed.

F.  Time Limitations on Allegations

This policy applies to allegations of research misconduct that occurred within six (6) years of the date WCU or HHS received the allegation, unless the respondent renews any alleged research misconduct incident, or the RIO determines the alleged incident would have an adverse effect on public health or safety. 

G.  Record Retention 

All documentation to substantiate the inquiry and investigation findings must be maintained by the University for at least seven (7) years.

H.  Notification of Termination of Research Misconduct Proceedings

If the University terminates an inquiry or investigation of a federally funded project for any reason without completing all relevant requirements, a report of such termination shall be made to ORI, including a description of the reasons for such a termination.

I.    Record Requests by Federal Agencies

Upon request from ORI, any institutional record relating to the investigation shall be transferred to ORI or the federal agency conducting an independent investigation. 

IV. Assessment of Allegations of Unethical Behavior, Noncompliance, or Research Misconduct

A.  Assessment of Allegations

Upon receiving an allegation of research misconduct, the RIO shall immediately assess the allegation to determine whether it is within the jurisdictional criteria of 42 CFR 93.102(b), and whether the allegation falls within the definition of research misconduct in 42 CFR 93.103.  The assessment must be completed within seven (7) calendar days. During the assessment period, the RIO need not interview the complainant, respondent, or other witnesses, or gather data beyond any that may have been submitted with the allegation, except as necessary to determine whether the allegation falls within the definition of research misconduct.  The RIO shall, on or before the date on which the respondent is notified of the allegation, obtain custody of, inventory, and sequester all research records and evidence needed to conduct the research misconduct proceeding, as provided in Section V.B.

B.  Allegations Potentially Constituting Unethical Behavior or Noncompliance

If the allegation does not constitute research misconduct but constitutes other possible unethical behavior or noncompliance, the RIO shall prepare a written report and provide the report to the respondent’s supervisor. Upon receipt of the report, the respondent’s supervisor shall ascertain the accuracy of the allegations and take action to correct and prevent recurrence of any unethical behavior or noncompliance and to discipline any individuals responsible for such practices. 

If the allegation constitutes noncompliance involving the use of animals or humans as subjects, the RIO may share the written report with the chair of the IACUC or IRB as appropriate.

V. Inquiry into Possible Research Misconduct

A. Initiation of the Inquiry and Notice to Respondent

If the RIO determines the allegation meets the definition of research misconduct and is sufficiently credible and specific so that potential evidence can be identified, the RIO shall prepare a written, confidential report describing the allegation and shall initiate the inquiry. The purpose of the inquiry is to conduct an initial review of the available evidence to determine whether to conduct an investigation. An inquiry does not require full review of all the evidence related to the allegation. 

At the time of or before beginning an inquiry, the RIO must make a good faith effort to notify the respondent, if known, in writing. If the inquiry subsequently identifies additional respondents, they must be notified in writing. 

B.  Sequestration of Records

On or before the date on which the respondent is notified, or the inquiry begins, whichever is earlier, the RIO must take all reasonable and practical steps to obtain custody of all the research records and evidence needed to conduct the research misconduct proceeding  and immediately sequester any research records or evidence deemed to be relevant to the allegation. 

C.  Inquiry Process 

The  RIO shall conduct an inquiry using methods deemed appropriate to the circumstances. An inquiry generally includes interviewing the complainant, the respondent, and key witnesses as well as examining relevant research records and materials. 

The scope of the inquiry does not normally include deciding whether misconduct definition occurred, determining decidedly who committed the research misconduct, or conducting exhaustive interviews and analyses. However, if a legally sufficient admission of research misconduct is made by the respondent, misconduct may be determined at the inquiry stage if all relevant issues are resolved. In that case, the RIO and DO shall consult with ORI to determine next steps in accordance with Section VII. 

D.  Inquiry Report 

Once the inquiry is complete, the RIO shall evaluate the evidence, including the testimony obtained during the inquiry, and in consultation with the CRO, make a recommendation to the DO as to whether an investigation is warranted. An investigation is warranted if there is: 

  1. A reasonable basis for concluding that the allegation falls within the definition of research misconduct under this Policy and involves PHS-supported biomedical or behavioral research, research training, or activities related to that research or research training, as provided in 34 CFR 93.102; and 
  2. Preliminary information-gathering and preliminary fact-finding from the inquiry indicates that the allegation may have substance. 

    A written inquiry report must be prepared that includes the following information : 

    1. the name and position of the respondent;
    2. the names and titles of those who conducted the inquiry; 
    3. a description of the allegations of research misconduct;
    4. identification of the PHS support, including, for example, grant numbers, grant applications, contracts and publications listing PHS support; 
    5. a summary of the inquiry process used; 
    6. a list of the research records reviewed;
    7. summaries of any interviews;
    8. the basis for recommending or not recommending that the allegations warrant an investigation;
    9. whether any other actions should be taken if an investigation is not warranted; and 
    10. any comments on the draft report by the respondent.

  3. Notification to Respondent and Opportunity to Comment

The RIO shall notify the respondent whether the inquiry found an investigation to be warranted, include a copy of the draft inquiry report for comment within ten (10) calendar days of respondent’s receipt of the report, and include a copy of or refer to 42 CFR Part 93 and WCU’s policies and procedures on research misconduct. Any comments that are submitted by the respondent shall be attached to the final inquiry report. Based on the comments, the RIO may revise the draft report if appropriate and prepare it in final form. 

E. Institutional Decision and Notification 

The RIO shall transmit the final inquiry report and any comments to the DO, who shall determine in writing whether an investigation is warranted. The inquiry is completed when the DO makes this determination. 

If the DO decides that an investigation is warranted, the RIO will provide ORI with the DO’s written decision and a copy of the report within thirty (30) calendar days of the DO’s decision. The RIO must provide the following information to ORI upon request: (1) the institutional policies and procedures under which the inquiry was conducted; (2) the research records and evidence reviewed, transcripts or recordings of any interviews, and copies of all relevant documents; and (3) the charges to be considered in the investigation. 

If the DO decides that an investigation is not warranted, the RIO shall secure and maintain for seven (7) years after the termination of the inquiry sufficiently detailed documentation of the inquiry to permit a later assessment by ORI of the reasons why an investigation was not conducted. These documents must be provided to ORI or other authorized HHS personnel upon request. All references to the allegation shall be removed from the respondent’s personnel files at every level and all materials relating to the allegation shall be forwarded to the Office of Legal Counsel. 

F.   Timeline for Completion of the Inquiry

The inquiry, including preparation of the final inquiry report and the decision of the DO on whether an investigation is warranted, shall normally be completed within sixty (60) calendar days of initiation of the inquiry, unless the RIO determines that circumstances clearly warrant a longer period. If the RIO approves an extension, the inquiry record shall include documentation of the reasons for exceeding the 60-day period. 

VI. Investigation into Potential Research Misconduct

A.  Initiation of the Investigation

The investigation shall begin within thirty (30) calendar days of the determination by the DO that an investigation is warranted. The purpose of the investigation is to develop a factual record by exploring the allegations in detail and examining the evidence in depth, leading to recommended findings on whether research misconduct has been committed, by whom, and to what extent. The investigation will also determine whether there are additional instances of possible research misconduct that would justify broadening the scope beyond the initial allegations. 

On or before the date on which the investigation begins, the RIO shall: (1) notify the ORI Director of the decision to begin the investigation and provide ORI a copy of the inquiry report; and (2) notify the respondent in writing of the allegations to be investigated. The RIO shall also give the respondent written notice of any new allegations of research misconduct within a reasonable amount of time of deciding to pursue allegations not addressed during the inquiry or in the initial notice of the investigation. The respondent shall be informed of the right to be interviewed by the investigation committee, and within a reasonable amount of time before they are requested to appear before the committee.

The RIO shall, prior to notifying respondent of the allegations, take all reasonable and practical steps to obtain custody of and sequester in a secure manner all research records and evidence needed to conduct the research misconduct proceeding that were not previously sequestered during the inquiry. The need for additional sequestration of records for the investigation may occur for any number of reasons, including the institution's decision to investigate additional allegations not considered during the inquiry stage or the identification of records during the inquiry process that had not been previously secured. The procedures to be followed for sequestration during the investigation are the same procedures that apply during the inquiry.

At the time the investigation is initiated, the RIO shall take appropriate steps to inform any research sponsors of the investigation in accordance with applicable laws and regulations. The respondent may be suspended from the research project in question if the RIO determines serious harm could result from their continuance. Any such suspension shall not relate to other duties at the University. 

In cases involving human subjects or animals, where there is sufficient preliminary evidence to suggest that the potential research misconduct may present an immediate or increased risk to the welfare of the humans or animals, the RIO will notify the Chairperson of the IACUC or IRB who may immediately suspend the research activity, in accordance with committee procedures, pending the outcome of the investigation described below.

B. Timeline of the Investigation

The investigation shall be completed within 120 calendar days after initiation of the investigation, including preparing the report of findings, providing the draft report for comment, and sending the final report to ORI. If the investigation cannot be completed in 120 calendar days, the RIO shall submit to ORI a written request for an extension, setting forth the reasons for the delay. The RIO shall ensure that periodic progress reports are filed with ORI, if ORI grants the request for an extension and directs the filing of such reports.

C. Appointment of the Investigation Committee

The RIO, in consultation with the CRO, shall appoint an ad hoc investigation committee consisting of a least three members including the RIO as chair, faculty, and other members of the University community or the broader community of scholars who possess the requisite expertise to conduct a thorough, competent, objective, and fair investigation. The committee shall take reasonable steps to conduct an unbiased and impartial investigation to the maximum extent practicable. No member of the committee shall have any unresolved personal, professional, or financial conflict of interest with the respondent or complainant. 

D. Committee Charge

The RIO will define the subject matter of the investigation in a written charge to the committee that: 

  1. Describes the allegations and related issues identified during the inquiry; 
  2. Identifies the respondent;
  3. Informs the committee that it must conduct the investigation as prescribed in this Section; 
  4. Defines research misconduct;
  5. Informs the committee that it must evaluate the evidence and testimony to determine whether, based on a preponderance of the evidence, research misconduct occurred and, if so, the type and extent of it and who was responsible;
  6. Informs the committee that in order to determine that the respondent committed research misconduct it must find that a preponderance of the evidence establishes that: (1) research misconduct, as defined in this policy, occurred (respondent has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence any affirmative defenses raised, including honest error or a difference of opinion); (2) the research misconduct is a significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community; and (3) the respondent committed the research misconduct intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly; and 
  7. Informs the committee that it must prepare or direct the preparation of a written investigation report that meets the requirements of this policy and 42 CFR § 93.313.

The investigation committee shall examine all research records and evidence relevant to the merits of each allegation and may interview each respondent, complainant, and any other witness who has been identified as having information relevant to the investigation. All significant issues or leads identified during the investigation shall be pursued, including identification of additional instances of possible research misconduct. 

The investigation committee shall record or transcribe each interview, provide the recording or transcript to the interviewee for correction, and include the recording or transcript in the record of the investigation. 

E.  Investigation Report 

The committee shall generate a written investigative report that: 

  1. describes the nature of the allegation of research misconduct, including identification of the respondent; 
  2. describes and documents the PHS support, including the numbers of any grants that are involved, grant applications, contracts, and publications listing PHS support; 
  3. describes the specific allegations of research misconduct considered in the investigation; 
  4. includes the WCU policies and procedures under which the investigation was conducted, unless those policies and procedures were provided to ORI previously; 
  5. identifies and summarizes the research records and evidence reviewed and identifies any evidence taken into custody but not reviewed; and 
  6. includes a statement of findings for each allegation of research misconduct. 

The statement of findings shall include:

  1. identification of whether the allegation constitutes fabrication, falsification, and/or plagiarism and whether it was conducted knowingly, intentionally, and recklessly; 
  2. a summary of the facts and the analysis which support the conclusion and consider the merits of any reasonable explanation by the respondent; 
  3. identification of the funding source, including PHS support (i.e., grant numbers, grant applications, contracts, and publications listing PHS support);
  4. determination of whether any publications need correction or retraction;
  5. identification of the individual(s) responsible for the research misconduct; 
  6. a list of any current or known applications for funding support that the respondent has pending.

F.   Response to the Report by the Respondent

The RIO shall provide the respondent with the draft report and supervised access to the evidence on which the report is based. The respondent must submit comments on the draft report to the RIO no later than thirty (30) days after receiving the report. The respondent’s comments, if provided, shall be included and considered in the final report.  

G.  Decision by the Deciding Official

The finalized report shall be transmitted to the DO. After reviewing the final report, the DO shall determine in writing whether WCU accepts or rejects all or any part of the investigation report, its findings, and the recommended actions; and the appropriate actions in response to the accepted findings of research misconduct. If the DO’s determination varies from the final report, they shall, as part of the written determination, explain in detail the basis of rendering a decision different from the findings of the investigation committee. Alternatively, the DO may also return the report to the investigation committee for further fact-finding or analysis. The DO shall normally make a decision within thirty (30) calendar days of receiving the investigation committee’s report. 

Should the DO decide to take administrative or disciplinary action against the respondent, such actions shall be in accordance with established University policies and procedures for sanctions and dismissals, subject to the requirements of Section VII. below. After rendering a decision, the DO shall notify the respondent and complainant in writing, and shall authorize the RIO to make appropriate disclosures to granting agencies or other affected parties.  

H.  Documentation of No Finding of Research Misconduct

If the investigation determines and the DO concurs that neither research misconduct nor unethical behavior has occurred, then all references to the allegations shall be removed from all personnel files and all materials relating to the allegation shall be forwarded to the Office of General Counsel who shall be responsible for their security. The files must be retained for seven (7) years. Further, the University shall implement Section A.5. of this Policy.

I.    Notice to ORI of Institutional Findings and Actions 

Unless an extension has been granted, the RIO must, within the 120-day period for completing the investigation, submit the following to ORI: (1) a copy of the final investigation report with all attachments; (2) a statement of whether the institution accepts the findings of the investigation report; (3) a statement of whether the institution found misconduct and, if so, who committed the misconduct; and (4) a description of any pending or completed administrative actions against the respondent.

VII. Administrative and Disciplinary Actions for Findings of Research Misconduct 

A.  Seriousness of the Misconduct

If the DO determines that research misconduct is substantiated by the findings, they shall decide on the appropriate actions to be taken, after consultation with the RIO. In determining what administrative or disciplinary actions are appropriate, the DO should consider the seriousness of the misconduct, including, but not limited to, the degree to which the misconduct was knowing, intentional, or reckless; was an isolated event or part of a pattern; or had significant impact on the research record, research subjects, other researchers, institutions, or the public welfare.

B.  Possible Administrative and Disciplinary Actions

Administrative and disciplinary actions shall consider the seriousness of the misconduct. With respect to administrative actions or discipline imposed upon employees, the University shall comply with all relevant personnel policies and laws; with respect to administrative actions or discipline imposed upon students, the University shall comply with all relevant student policies and codes. Administrative actions may include: 

  1. Withdrawal or correction of all pending or published abstracts and papers emanating from the research where research misconduct was found;
  2. Removal of the responsible person from the particular project, letter of reprimand, special monitoring of future work, probation, suspension, salary reduction, or initiation of steps leading to possible rank reduction or termination of employment;
  3. Restitution of funds to the grantor agency as appropriate; and
  4. Other action appropriate to the research misconduct.

C.  Criminal or Civil Fraud Violations

If the University believes that criminal or civil fraud violations may have occurred, the University shall promptly refer the matter to the appropriate investigative body.

IX. Policy Review

This policy shall be reviewed and revised as necessary every five (5) years.

X. Related Policies and Resources

This policy is meant to complement, not replace, other policies that may apply to conduct occurring during the research process, including:

       A. WCU or State personnel policies and procedures; policies relating to financial misconduct, human or animal subject research, or conflict of interest; the WCU Code of Student Conduct; the WCU Faculty Handbook; or other applicable policies.

       B. Research which is required to comply with separate federal policies and rules implemented in response to the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s Federal Policy on Research Misconduct; for example, The Health and Human Services Policies codified at 42 CFR Part 93.

Nothing in this policy is meant to prohibit the adoption of policies and procedures addressing questionable research practices, which do not rise to the level of research misconduct, as defined in this policy, but which violate the traditional values of research, and are detrimental to the research process.

WCU Policy 50, Research Involving Recombinant DNA Molecules
WCU Policy 54, Conflicts of Interest and Conflicts of Commitment 
WCU Policy 55, Solicitation of External Funds
WCU Policy 131, Research Involving Human Subjects
42 CFR Part 93, Public Health Service Policies on Research Misconduct
The UNC Policy Manual 500.7, Policy On Research Conduct

Office of Web Services