Human Factors in Forensic Handwriting Examination

EWGHFHE coverOne of the projects I have had the pleasure to be involved in was the “Expert Working Group for Human Factors in Handwriting Examination”.  The WG was convened in 2015 to conduct a scientific assessment of the effects of Human Factors in Forensic Handwriting Examination, with the support of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences (OIFS) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Programs Office.

It was a lengthy process involving a lot of people drawn from many different domains.  The authors of the report included Melissa K. Taylor, Carolyne Bird, Brett Bishop, Ted Burkes, Michael P. Caligiuri, Bryan Found, Wesley P. Grose, Lauren R. Logan, Kenneth E. Melson, Mara L. Merlino, Larry S. Miller, Linton Mohammed, Jonathan Morris, John Paul Osborn, Nikola Osborne, Brent Ostrum, Christopher P. Saunders, Scott A. Shappell, H. David Sheets, Sargur N. Srihari, Reinoud D. Stoel, Thomas W. Vastrick, Heather E. Waltke, and Emily J. Will.

The final report has been published as a NIST Interagency/Internal Report (NISTIR #8282), as of February 18, 2020.1

The report abstract reads, as follows:

For some 6,000 years, humans have made an indelible mark on history through the loops, strokes, and other characters that constitute the written form of language – handwriting. The study of handwriting is also an important part of forensic science. By analyzing the characteristics of a handwritten note or signature, a trained forensic document examiner may be able to extract valuable information for determining whether a note or signature is genuine, as well as the likely writer. As with all human endeavors, handwriting examination is not immune to errors. In June 2015, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology convened the Expert Working Group for Human Factors in Handwriting Examination to conduct a scientific assessment of the effects of human factors on forensic handwriting examination with the goal of recommending strategies and approaches to improve its practice and reduce the likelihood of errors. This report provides a comprehensive discussion of how human factors relate to all aspects of handwriting examinations including communicating conclusions to all relevant parties through reports and testimony. The report also discusses education, training, and certification as well as the role of quality assurance, quality control, and management in reducing errors.

The document is not perfect (this type of thing rarely is).  However, a lot of effort went into it and the end result deserves careful consideration and review by forensic practitioners and anyone interested in the field.

You can get more information from the NIST Webpage:
Alternatively, here is a direct link to report:


David H. Kaye’s “Forensic Science, Statistics & the Law” Blog

David H. Kaye (DHK) is one of my favourite writers. He is truly prolific and always manages to provide great insights for the reader. His grasp of statistics, logic, and the law is second-to-none, and his ability to communicate those very challenging topics to his audience is equally impressive.

As a mini introduction, David “…is Distinguished Professor, and Weiss Family Scholar in the School of Law, a graduate faculty member of Penn State’s Forensic Science Program, and a Regents’ Professor Emeritus, ASU.” If you would like to see a list of his publications check out 

Yes, DHK has written many things on many topics.1  But I would like to focus on his less formal writings from his blog  Forensic Science, Statistics & the Law.

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Forewarned is forearmed or, if Latin is your thing, “praemonitus, praemunitus”. So the saying goes and clearly there is great value in knowing what lies ahead for us. If we know what is coming our way we can, in theory, prepare properly for any challenge.

Challenges are nothing new to forensic scientists. Critics routinely point out issues with our work. Some of those criticisms are fair and reasonable, others not so much. Much of the critical commentary affects a discipline as a whole demanding an overall, or group, response by members of each discipline. In my experience, disciplines are generally behind the curve in their responses to critics. Nonetheless, over time some issues have been addressed, at least partially if not completely, through empirical research.  Others have not. To be fair, the activities needed to properly address the critics are not trivial and require both time and resources; scarce commodities in modern forensic labs. Overall, things are improving, albeit very slowly.

Criticism takes on a whole new meaning in the context of a court of law. Indeed, I think that criticism is the essence of cross-examination — a fundamental and important aspect of any adversarial justice system. Although essential, it is rarely an enjoyable part of the proceedings for any expert. Read more

Certification — ABFDE

What is certification? In my opinion professional certification is a designation that indicates the holder of the certification has appropriate and adequate qualifications to do some particular, generally well-defined, job or task. As an example I am a forensic document examiner and I have received professional certification from the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, Inc.


An internet search for ‘certification’ produces a huge list of possibilities, with more such programs being developed all the time as people become attuned to issues of quality and competency. Indeed, almost every profession has some type of certification and a few have several (consider all of the ‘certifications’ in the computing industry). Most, if not all, certification programs are aimed at improving the quality in a given profession by setting minimum standards for the job. The basic idea is that someone meeting or exceeding those standards will produce quality output on the job. Certification programs are generally created or are administered by a professional society, a college or university, or some private body set up expressly for that purpose.

Forensic Document Examination is no exception so it may be worthwhile discussing certification options as well as the pros and cons that I see for those options.
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Can of worms…

When someone “opens a can of worms” it usually spells trouble. Worms in a canFor many people, that phrase evokes a powerful image of a writhing mess of worms escaping from a previously-sealed, but now opened, can or container. With the result of such action being serious problems for the owner of said can, often problems of an unanticipated or uncertain nature. In the context of our work as Forensic Document Examiners I sometimes hear this in discussions of how to handle questions on the stand. The advice goes along the lines of ‘keep your answers simple and say as little as possible in order to limit any opportunity for questions from the other side.’

It is suggested that lengthy or complex answers will only lead to more questions and more discussion. The latter are the proverbial “can of worms” that one must strive to avoid opening.

That makes little sense to me.
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