Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Raw, Not for Consumption

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Raw, Not for Consumption

Article excerpt

Unpublished research data must be placed beyond the FoI's reach or the academy will suffer, Kevin Schurer warns.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is being used in ways that its creators did not intend, and universities are bearing the cost.

While the act aims to make the functioning of government (and government- funded organisations such as universities) more open, an unintended consequence is that researchers may be forced to hand over unpublished data.

The protection of freedoms bill, now in its final parliamentary stages, takes this a dangerous step further by extending the act to cover sets of research data in electronic form, even where they are incomplete or unverified.

FoI requests are an increasing headache for universities. At my institution, the number of requests has risen from 46 in 2007 to 132 last year, costing an estimated Pounds 185,000 in staff time. Furthermore, they are increasingly straying into research areas, and some institutions would say that this has caused problems already. For example, a research group at the University of Oxford spent a year rebutting a request for data from a big nationwide health study, submitted by a company with a significant commercial interest. Oxford incurred hefty legal costs in the process.

My view is that we should exempt from FoI requests clearly defined research data prior to publication, as happens in Scotland. But the Westminster government has so far resisted proposed amendments to the legislation for the rest of the UK. Ministers argue that existing exemptions - for example, on the grounds that the information is going to be published anyway, or where commercial interests might be harmed - are enough to prevent problems.

This is not the case. The exemption relating to future publication only applies to information that is to be published. It does not protect raw research data or the results of analyses that are carried out during the course of the research. In contrast, the research exemption in the FoI (Scotland) Act 2002 applies to all "information obtained in the course of, or derived from, a programme of research". It also applies where disclosure would prejudice the interests of the programme, its participants or the authority, which is much broader than commercial and confidentiality concerns. …

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