One of the Research Ethics Board applications I submitted last week bounced back today, with a request to attach the original patient consent form used for sample acquisition.
I searched all my computer files (I use extremely logical folder and file names, and rename every file that people send me to fit my structure) and found…
nothing, nada, zip. Not a sausage.
My boss took over this project when the original PI retired a few years ago, before I started my current job. The active patient accrual phase was well and truly over by then, and we’ve just been renewing the ethics certificate every year to allow us to keep following patients and hence assess correlations with long-term clinical outcomes. We’ve never been asked for the original consent form before, but this time we’d requested a couple of minor protocol changes alongside the usual annual renewal, which must have been what triggered the request.
I searched through all my old emails, and eventually found some correspondence dating from my first few months in this job. One email said that the original application file – dating from the mid 1990s – had been dropped off at my desk while I was at a meeting.
I had a vague, misty memory of this, but no good idea of where the file might be.
With a sigh, I regarded the piles and piles of stacked up folders and loose paper all over my work area. I am not a tidy person, to say the least, and I knew the folder I needed was likely to be somewhere near the bottom of one of the piles at the very back of my desk. But I thought it was probably best to start at the top of the front piles.
As I started to wade through everything, I realised how useless most of the paper actually was. Much of it was in folders that were handed over to me when I first started, and back then I didn’t have a solid grasp of what kinds of documents are important to keep. So I kept everything, probably thinking that I’d go through it all a few months in and decide what to keep and what to recycle.
Three years later…
Some folders contained reams and reams of printed out emails – the person who initiated most of the folders is old-school, and doesn’t trust electronic copies, so she prints everything. And I do mean everything – there were endless printouts of email conversations about arranging meetings to discuss the project, that kind of thing. There were faxes, too, and pretty much every single draft of the grants and manuscripts that were submitted well before my time.
In the folders I’d started rather than taken over, there were no printed emails, but I’d kept lots of stuff that I now know to be useless. Not everything with a signature on it needs to be kept, especially when the grant has already been submitted, reviewed, and the project is either funded / published or long since abandoned, with only grudges against reviewers to remember it by. And, more shamefully, I’d also neglected to recycle drafts of grants and manuscripts that are now ancient history, one way or another, not to mention all the paper relating to the early stages of projects that the PI abandoned as a bad idea even before submission.
I’m glad to say that not everything was useless – I’ve kept the annotated handouts from various courses, and all the printed research papers and in-progress manuscript drafts (I can’t read or edit on screen, although if anyone would like to buy me an iPad I’d be willing to revise my habits). And the exercise as a whole was a great reminder of how far I’ve come since I started; I now tend to know what’s important and needs to be kept, based on previous experience.
There was another benefit, too – I liberated a bunch of empty folders, bulldog clips, and big paper clips (all of which are always in short supply around here).
Oh, and I found the consent form. Right at the bottom of the very last pile of folders. It’s now been scanned in as a PDF, given a logical file name, and saved in a logically-named folder, so I can find it again in a few seconds next time it’s needed.
Thank the FSM I’m so much more disciplined and tidy with computer files than with paper.