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Framework for Researchers

Table of Contents


In 1999, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC)was approached by the Canadian Museum of Nature, on behalf of other museums and researchers, with a concern about the lack of NSERC guidelines on the proper care, maintenance, ownership and eventual transfer (for long-term storage) of collections. Many museums receive requests to acquire “orphaned” collections (acquired partially or wholly with NSERC funds) that were once housed in universities and that are sometimes in very poor condition.

In response to the concerns, NSERC formed an "Advisory Group on Collections" composed of researchers, representatives of professional associations, museum officials and the Canadian Association of University Research Administrators (CAURA) to examine the problem and develop some guidelines – a "Framework" – for researchers working with university-based collections. Representatives from the three federal granting agencies – NSERC, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) – worked with the group in the development of this document.

The federal granting agencies recognize that university-based collections are essential for scientific and cultural research and for training future generations of researchers. These research collections are a significant part of the scientific and cultural resources of Canada, and contain irreplaceable scientific, humanistic, social, scientific, and cultural data. Some of these collections are unique globally, and any repository of type specimens is, similarly, of global importance.

This document clarifies the three federal granting agencies’ general expectations on the care and maintenance of collections that are established as part of agency-funded research programs. It will also help ensure that collections are properly maintained and, if necessary, transferred to appropriate repositories, where they will be assured of long-term curatorial care and where other researchers will have reasonable access to them.

The agencies thank the members of the Advisory Group, whose names appear in the Appendix, for lending their time and expertise to the agencies in support of the development of this Framework. The agencies also thank the members of the research community who shared their comments on earlier drafts of the document.


Over the years, a significant amount of research funding awarded by the three federal granting agencies has been used to establish and expand collections, mainly in the areas of natural history, anthropology and archaeology, and cells and tissues. The collections are commonly held in laboratories for research purposes before being stored in university museums, government facilities, provincial facilities, national or provincial museums.

While some of the collections may be well maintained, many collections, especially smaller ones, face an uncertain future. These collections are often established by individual researchers over the course of their careers. While some of these smaller collections are not of central importance to the institution, collectively they are a significant scientific asset. Unfortunately, they can deteriorate or be taken out of Canada, raising questions about their present and future care and accessibility. These concerns have prompted the three federal granting agencies to review their policies on collections.

This Framework is the fruition of an attempt by the three federal granting agencies to consolidate and harmonize their policies on research collections, and to set forth their expectations to institutions1 and researchers working with collections. The Framework serves three purposes:

  1. to clarify the agencies’ expectations on the management of collections acquired with their funds;
  2. to provide a framework for institutions to develop their own policy on the care and ownership of collections; and
  3. to provide guidance to researchers on the long-term care of valuable collections, particularly in assessing the state of their collections, engaging in a dialogue with their institutions on the ongoing care of collections, and planning for the eventual transfer of specimens to long-term repositories.


For the purpose of this document, “collection” is defined as:
set(s) of objects and associated documentation, assembled and safeguarded for the purpose of scholarly research and education.

This definition is meant to include the following:

  • Both non-living and living collections (such as microbial, algal, cellular or tissue collections), but excludes collections of animals that fall under the policies and guidelines of the Canadian Council on Animal Care (such as vertebrates and certain invertebrates).
  • Anthropological and cultural collections and collections resulting from the excavation of archaeological sites.
  • Digital media, digital images of cultural collections, and digitized forms of artifacts are included only if they are associated with a physical collection.

Ethical and Legal Context

Researchers who use public funds to establish collections should be aware of the environmental, socio-cultural and legal context in which their research is taking place. Below are some of the researcher’s responsibilities when working with collections.

Ethical Principles

The basic principles underlying collection-based research are identified in the Canadian Museums Association Ethical Guidelines.2 These principles also apply to collection-based research undertaken in universities. They include:

Respect for the environment: Research and fieldwork should not be detrimental to the environment, any animal or plant populations, or any natural, historical or cultural site. (Adapted from CMA Ethical Guidelines, Section H.)

Respect for traditional customs: Researchers should respect the world view of other cultures or communities, including oral history and traditional knowledge concerning culturally significant objects and human osteological material. Information about these culturally sensitive objects may not be readily available, and it is the responsibility of researchers to actively seek it out, and to consult with knowledgeable members of the appropriate communities before using the material in any way. (CMA Ethical Guidelines, Section C.3.)3

Responsibility of trusteeship: Researchers and institutions have the responsibility to hold valuable collections in trust and in good condition for the research community, which should have reasonable access to them. (Inspired from CMA Ethical Guidelines, Section C.1.)

The principle of confidentiality, discussed in the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans,4 also applies to certain types of collections:

Respect for privacy and confidentiality: Issues of confidentiality may arise, particularly in connection with collections of human cells or tissue. Researchers have the responsibility to maintain standards of privacy and confidentiality that protect the access, control and dissemination of personal information linked to specimens in their collection.

Researchers who use existing collections have a responsibility to give appropriate professional credit to the researchers who assembled the collections.5

Legal Considerations

Researchers should be aware of all applicable legislation related to collection activities. This includes laws applying to fieldwork which may vary depending on the host province, territory, or country, and laws concerning the illicit traffic in natural or cultural objects, for example, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).6

Researchers should also be aware of any applicable collecting or export permit requirements.7

Researchers who are applying for funding from one of the federal granting agencies and who intend to do fieldwork may be required to perform an environmental assessment of their project proposal under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

Ownership and Transfer of Collections

Any material purchased or collected with funds from a federal granting agency is the property of the university. This policy, however, should not supersede any provincial legislation8 or existing agreements on ownership of collections, or any permit specifications for specimens imported into Canada. In some cases, collections may have relied only in part on support from the agencies; therefore, universities may not automatically own collections in their entirety. It is important to establish ownership since it is a factor in long-term curation.

Institutions should develop policies to ensure these valuable assets are cared for properly and responsibly. Such policies could include the following elements:

  • identifying an administrative contact for issues related to collections;
  • requiring researchers to inform the institution’s administration of the existence of their collections;
  • identifying and contacting a long-term repository, ideally when a collection is initially established;
  • establishing the researcher’s and the institution’s respective responsibilities to properly maintain the collection;
  • defining a policy for lending specimens;
  • defining a policy for donating or disposing of specimens;
  • providing reasonable access to other researchers;
  • planning for the security and safety of collections, including possible emergencies; and
  • addressing intellectual property and legal issues where applicable.

Canadian institutions should be given a right of first refusal when identifying a potential long-term repository or in the event of a transfer. When a collection can no longer be maintained in good condition and be made readily available to researchers, the decision to direct the collection to a long-term repository should be made in a timely manner in consultation with the university administration, the researcher(s), and the final repository.

A policy on specimen loans is not intended to restrict recognized procedures of exchange between researchers and institutions. Instead, this policy should assure the continuing good condition and future availability of the material or specimens.

The policy on use and disposal of specimens should recognize the scientific value of type specimens and voucher specimens.9 Type specimens should be preserved as quickly as possible in an appropriate long-term facility. Voucher specimens should also be preserved in an appropriate repository, in the same quality of collection as other essential specimens – regional, national, or university collections.

Not all specimens in university collections are necessarily appropriate for deposition in long-term repositories. The policy on disposing of replaceable or renewable material used for teaching or training may require special considerations. Any intention to dispose of objects from a collection should be announced several months in advance using an appropriate medium,10 so that other researchers may acquire objects of interest to them.

The ownership of collections also entails “associated documentation” (refer to Section 2). Intellectual property issues arising from this associated documentation should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the particular type of collaboration (e.g., university-industry collaborations, collaborations with aboriginal populations or specific minority populations, collaborations with community partners). Letters of agreement that set out the interests of the various parties should include a reference, when appropriate, to these intellectual property rights.

Collections, Curation and Management of Specimens and Artifacts

Where available, researchers should follow established guidelines and best practices developed by the relevant professional association on how best to collect, preserve and use specimens and artifacts in their research. The collections staff of long-term repositories are also a prime source of expertise in these areas, particularly in the life and biomedical sciences.

For natural history disciplines, researchers should consult the Guidelines for the Care of Natural History Collections11 developed by the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, as well as manuals specific to various collections groups.12


All objects in a collection should be fully documented and labeled according to established standards of the discipline. Such documentation should include, at a minimum, the identity of the object (if determined), the date and manner in which it was acquired, a detailed description of its geographic provenance and a numeric geo-reference, a description of its physical and biotic environment, the name of the collector, and the date of the collection. This information enhances objects, makes them more accessible to other researchers, and the only permanent record should the objects themselves deteriorate or be destroyed. Researchers working with collections may consider learning “best practices” to properly develop and manage documentation and archival records.

Current best practices in collection management involve the electronic storage of data. Information about collections management software can be obtained from any of several resources: researchers in the field, provincial or national museums,13 professional associations, the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) Web site,14 or the Conservation Data Centres and Natural Heritage Information Centres (members of the Association for Biodiversity Information). Researchers choosing a software package should ensure that it is compatible with the system used by the long-term repository. Once a system is in place, budgetary allowances should be made for maintenance, upgrades and staff training. These arrangements should be made between the researcher and the owner of the collections, as well as the final repository where appropriate.


Institutions and researchers should give other members of the research community, including students, researchers and amateur scientists, reasonable access to their collections. In some cases, fees may be charged to these users to recover some of the incurred costs.15

To facilitate access, researchers and institutions should make digital records of specimen data and consider making the existence of their collections known on Web sites.

Decisions on collections access should be made in a timely, transparent and equitable fashion. In the case of larger collections that go beyond an individual’s program of research, decisions should be made jointly by the researcher and the user group. Institutions are also encouraged to document access to their collection, with the view of keeping a permanent record. Reasons for denying access should be explained upon request.

In some cases, an institution or a researcher may decide to restrict access to certain specimens or associated documentation. For example, access to fragile or rare specimens in a natural science collection may be restricted because of concerns about preservation. Information about locations of finds may be kept confidential to protect endangered species or fragile ecosystems. In the cases of collections of “biohazards,” material may be accessible to all researchers, with the limitation that researchers must be qualified to work with organisms at a pre-determined risk level for those biohazards. Access to some artifacts in an anthropological collection may be limited because of cultural sensitivities. In some cases, if there are intellectual property issues at stake or patents pending, access may be delayed.

References and Links to Web Sites

Note: The references and links below are listed only as resources. The agencies do not endorse the contents of these Web sites. If the links are no longer valid, please bring the problem to the attention of the Webmaster of one of the agencies.

Canadian Archaeological Association: Statement of Principles for Ethical Conduct Pertaining to Aboriginal Peoples

This link will take you to another Web site

Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN): Collections Management Software Selection Online Training and Collections Management Software Review This link will take you to another Web site

Canadian Museums Association: Ethical Guidelines (1999) This link will take you to another Web site

The Importance of Research Collections of Terrestrial Arthropods – A brief prepared by the Biological Survey of Canada (Terrestrial Arthropods) 1991

This link will take you to another Web site

The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC)This link will take you to another Web site

Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (1998)
This link will take you to another Web site

Tri-Council Policy Statement: Integrity in Research and Scholarship

Further Reading

Bridson, D. & Forman, L. (editors) 1998. The Herbarium Handbook, Third Edition, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK.

Brunton, C.H.C., Besterman, T.P. and Cooper, J.A. (eds). 1985. Guidelines for the Curation of Geological Materials. Geological Society Misc. Paper No. 17, U.K.

Duckworth, W.D., H.H. Genoways, and C.L. Rose. 1993. Preserving Our Natural Science Collections: Chronicle of Our Environmental Heritage. National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property, Washington, DC, 140 pp.

Hawksworth, D. L. 1974. Mycologist’s Handbook, Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau, Kew, UK.

Lane, Meredith A. 2001. The homeless specimen: Handling relinquished natural history collections. Museum
News 80(1):60-63, 82-83.

Nudds, J.R. and C.W. Pettitt, eds. 1997. The Value and Valuation of Natural Science Collections. Proceedings of the International Conference, Manchester, 1995. The Geological Society, London. 276 pp.

White, R.D. and W.D. Allmon, eds. 2000. Guidelines for the Management and Curation of Invertebrate Fossil Collections including a Data Model and Standards for Computerization. The Paleontological Society, Special Publication 10, 260 pp.


Members of the Advisory Group on Collections

  1. Dr. Mary Needler Arai
    Canadian Zoological Collections Advisory Committee
    Canadian Society of Zoologists

  2. Dr. Denis Barabé
    Canadian Botanical Association

  3. Dr. Debra Burleson
    Director, Museum of Natural History
    Halifax, Nova Scotia

  4. Dr. Persis B. Clarkson
    Chair, Department of Anthropology
    University of Winnipeg

  5. Dr. Bruce Clayman
    Vice-President, Research
    Simon Fraser University

  6. Dr. Jonathan Geiger
    Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics
    Faculty of Medicine
    University of Manitoba

  7. Dr. Mark Graham (Chair)
    Director, Research Services
    Canadian Museum of Nature

  8. Dr. Stephen Marshall
    Department of Environmental Biology
    Ontario Agricultural College
    University of Guelph

  9. Dr. Hans-Dieter Sues
    Vice-President, Collections & Research
    Royal Ontario Museum

1The term “institution” is used throughout the document to refer to any research institution that receives funding from either NSERC, SSHRC or CIHR.

2Canadian Museums Association: Ethical Guidelines (1999): This link will take you to another Web site

3Additional guidelines on this subject are:
Canadian Archaeological Association: Statement of Principles for Ethical Conduct Pertaining to Aboriginal Peoples (This link will take you to another Web site; – Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (1998), Section 6, “ResearchInvolving Aboriginal Peoples” ( This link will take you to another Web site

4Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (1998) (with 2000, 2002 and 2005 amendments): This link will take you to another Web site policystatement/policystatement.cfm.

5Tri-Council Policy Statement: Integrity in Research and Scholarship (1994)

6Links to Web sites of many international biological organizations and conventions may be found on the Web site of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (This link will take you to another Web site

7Fossils are included in the "Canadian Cultural Property Export Control List" (This link will take you to another Web site ) and require a permit for export. For more information on this, consult Heritage Canada's Web site at: This link will take you to another Web site

8For example, provincial legislation in Nova Scotia, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan gives ownership of collections to the province.

9The policy on use and disposal of specimens should recognize the scientific value of name bearing types, vouchers and other specimens. Type specimens form the objective standards on which correct usage of taxon names is based, and it is vital that types be housed in accessible, permanent collections. Voucher specimens physically document the identities of research organisms, and must also be appropriately housed in appropriate long-term facilities where they can be accessed for reference or to confirm or correct the identities of organisms used in prior research. Individual researchers are normally responsible for depositing properly prepared and labeled specimens in appropriate collections, after which the housing and maintenance of the voucher and type specimens are the responsibility of the collection owners.

10For example, for terrestrial arthropod collections, the newsletter of the Biological Survey of Canada may be an appropriate medium through which to notify the community of such potential losses. This link will take you to another Web site

11Available at: This link will take you to another Web site

12For example: Bridson, D. & Forman, L. (editors) 1998. The Herbarium Handbook, Third Edition, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK; Brunton, C.H.C., Besterman, T.P. and Cooper, J.A. (eds). 1985. Guidelines for the Curation of Geological Materials. Geological Society Misc. Paper No. 17, U.K.; Hawksworth, D. L. 1974. Mycologist’s Handbook, Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau, Kew, UK.

13For example, “Specify” (This link will take you to another Web site is a collections management software system in use in many major museum collections.

14See CHIN’s Collections Management Software Selection Course and Collections Management Software Review, available at: This link will take you to another Web site Also available at This link will take you to another Web site in a slightly updated version (typographic corrections only).

15NSERC is aware that this may not be appropriate in all disciplines. In systematics collections, for example, the tradition is one of free access.