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Forensic Handwriting Examination and Human Factors

Summary

The Expert Working Group for Human Factors in Handwriting Examination has conducted a scientific assessment of the effects of human factors on forensic handwriting examination. The output of this assessment, Forensic Handwriting Examination and Human Factors: Improving the Practice Through a Systems Approach, provides a comprehensive discussion of human factors as they relate to all aspects of handwriting examination, from documenting discriminating features to reporting results and testifying in court. The report also includes recommendations for improving the practice going forward. This expert working group is supported by 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.

Description

Composite photo shows a holdup note on the left labeled "Questioned Handwriting," with two "Known Samples" on the right.

Forensic handwriting examiners can only compare writing of the same type. In this case, only the second known sample can be compared to the questioned handwriting.

Credit: NIST

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. Whether it is the movement of a stylus inscribing wet clay or the motion of a pen across paper, handwriting is one of the most familiar forms of expression and one of the most idiosyncratic. The study of handwriting is also an important part of forensic science. By analyzing the characteristics of a handwritten note or signature—not only the slant of the writing and how letters are formed, but more subtle features—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.

The results of a forensic document examination can have far‑reaching consequences: a person’s life or liberty may hang in the balance. A trained forensic document examiner may be called upon in a court of law to answer—or to supply information that would help a judge or jury answer—questions involving authenticity and writership. However, there is increased recognition and concern, highlighted by several recent studies cited throughout this document, that the nature of evidence and human error can call into question the reliability of many types of forensic examinations, including handwriting.

The study of human factors examines the interactions between humans and other elements of a system: technology, training, decisions, products, procedures, workspaces, and the overall environment encountered at work and in daily living. By analyzing human factors, the nature of human errors in the workplace—how they arise and how they can be prevented or mitigated—can come to light.

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 sponsored the work of this expert panel to encourage and enhance efforts to apply human factors principles to forensic science applications, reduce the risk of error, and improve the practice of forensic handwriting examination.

Collaborators: 

*Carolyne Bird, PhD, Science Leader, Document Examination, Forensic Science SA, Australia
Brett M. Bishop, FDE, Washington State Patrol
**Ted Burkes, FDE, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Laboratory
*Michael P. Caligiuri, PhD, Emeritus Professor, University of California at San Diego; Department of Psychiatry 
Bryan Found, PhD, Chief Forensic Scientist, Victoria Police Forensic Services Department, Australia
*Wesley P. Grose, Crime Laboratory Director, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department
*Lauren R. Logan, Forensic Scientist II, Indiana State Police Laboratory 
*Kenneth E. Melson, JD, Professorial Lecturer in Law, George Washington University Law School
Mara L. Merlino, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology and Sociology, and Coordinator, Master of Arts Program in Interdisciplinary Behavioral Science, Kentucky State University
Larry S. Miller, PhD, Professor and Chair, Department of Criminal Justice, East Tennessee State University
Linton Mohammed, PhD, FDE, Forensic Science Consultants, Inc., Burlington, CA
Jonathan Morris, Forensic Scientist, Scottish Police Authority Forensic Services, Scottish Crime Campus
John Paul Osborn, FDE, Osborn and Son, Middlesex, New Jersey
*Nikola Osborne, PhD, Postdoctoral Scholar, Department of Criminology, Law and Society, University of California, Irvine 
Brent Ostrum, Senior FDE, Canada Border Services Agency
Christopher P. Saunders, PhD, Associate Professor of Statistics/Lead Signal Processing Engineer, South Dakota State University/MITRE
Scott A. Shappell, PhD, Professor and Chair, Department of Human Factors, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
H. David Sheets, PhD, Professor, Department of Physics, Canisius College
Sargur N. Srihari, PhD, Distinguished Professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, State University of New York at Buffalo
*Reinoud D. Stoel, PhD, Netherlands Forensic Institute, the Netherlands 
*Thomas W. Vastrick, FDE, Private Practice, Apopka, Florida 
*Heather E. Waltke, MFS, MPH, Associate Director, OIFS, NIJ
Emily J. Will, MA, FDE, Private Practice, Raleigh, North Carolina
Ron Cowen, Writer and Editor
Katherine Fuller, Desktop Publisher/Editing Specialist, Leidos
Christina Frank, Editor, Leidos
MacKenzie Robertson, Independent Consultant, Dakota Consulting, Inc.
Katherine Ritterhoff, MS, Project Manager, Leidos

* Member of the Working Group Editorial Committee
** Chair of Working Group; Working Group Editorial Committee


Publication:

Expert Working Group for Human Factors in Handwriting ExaminationForensic Handwriting Examination and Human Factors: Improving the Practice Through a Systems Approach. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Institute of Standards and Technology. 2021. NISTIR 8282R1. Published May 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.6028/NIST.IR.8282r1


Related Publications:

Flow chart describing forensic handwriting examination process

NIST Handwriting Analysis Process Map 

This process map shows the current steps Forensic Document Examiners follow during a handwriting comparison. The Working Group developed the process map in collaboration with others in the FDE community to represent current practices in the United
States. The steps outlined are typical of a routine handwriting examination case and are presented in a linear fashion.

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The title of the journal "Journal of Forensic Document Examination" fall along the top left side of the image with Forensic Document Examination in Bigger Bold letters followed by the volume information

Journal of Forensic Document Examination

Vol. 30 (2021): SPECIAL ISSUE: 2020 NIST/NIJ Expert Working Group for Human Factors in Handwriting Examination Report

A series of articles by participants in the 2020 NIST NIJ Expert Working Group for Human Factors in Handwriting Examination providing an overview and highlights of the report.  In addition, a technical article detailing an examination of Indian currency.

 

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Bold Big font Forensic Sciences on light green and white background

Australian Journal of Forensic Science

Volume 51, 2019 - Issue sup1 ANZFSS symposium Supplement Series - Forensic handwriting examination and cognitive bias: recommendations from the NIST expert working group on human factors

Nikola Osborne, Carolyne Bird and Reinoud Stoel, participants in the 2020 NIST NIJ Expert Working Group for Human Factors in Handwriting Examination, provide their perspective of the report.

 

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An old fashioned pen on paper with script

CSAFE Resources for Improving Handwriting Evaluation 

The CSAFE Handwriting Database is an interactive, public database designed for the development of statistical approaches to forensic handwriting evaluations.   

CSAFE Handwriter are automatic matching algorithms that provide automatic matching algorithms for objective and reproducible scores as a foundation for a fair judicial process. 

 

Created May 23, 2018, Updated September 23, 2022