Freedom of information – a tool for researchers

Added by Stephane Goldstein on 11 January 2011 19:03

The RIN is working to raise awareness of the potential of freedom of information legislation as a tool for researchers.

The right to obtain primary and archival information from government departments and other UK public bodies can be a powerful factor for academic researchers in a range of disciplines. Such a right is provided through freedom of information (FoI) legislation enacted these past few years: the Freedom of Information Act, the related but distinct Freedom of Information Act in Scotland, and the Environmental Information Regulations, the latter founded on a European Directive.

However, awareness of this legislation, and knowledge about how best to make use of it, remains - perhaps surprisingly - low among researchers in higher education. Unlike, say, journalists and campaigners, academics appear to take little advantage of it at present. At the behest of our Library and Information Sciences Consultative Group, the RIN has been seeking to raise the profile of the legislation, and point to its potential to the research community.

The RIN has organised two workshops to date: in September 2008 in London, and during 2009 in Glasgow. These have been opportunities to bring together researchers, librarians, archivists and relevant organisations such as the Information Commissioner’s Office (and its Scottish counterpart), The National Archives, the National Archives of Scotland and JISC Legal, as well as individuals with a strong personal interest in this area, including the late Professor Duncan Tanner, from Bangor University, and Dr Elizabeth Shepherd, from University College London. We have also had the support of Dr Andrew Booth, from the University of Sheffield, who has written a very useful overview with examples of how FOI legislation has been used in practice in certain disciplines (see below).

The workshops were an opportunity to engage in a dialogue, covering such issues as the best approaches for obtaining information from public bodies, and the limitations of FoI legislation. We are keen to pursue this dialogue; for instance, in November 2009, RIN took part in a meeting organised by the HE/FE Information Compliance Group.

Now, during 2011, we are collaborating with JISC, the Information Commissioner’s Office, The National Archives and others to investigate how FoI is addressed by researchers in higher education and to raise awareness about both the opportunities and the challenges that the legislation represents for the sector - see here for further information about this initiative.

For reference, it is worth looking at an article in the July 2009 edition of Information World Review, on how FoI legislation is being used, and what might make it work even better.

If you have any suggestions or comments, or would like further information, please contact

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