Freedom of information: helping researchers meet the challenge

Added by Stephane Goldstein on 17 January 2011 19:26

Until recently, very few researchers in the UK have been aware that the information and data they gather, create and analyse in the course of their research are subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act, the related but distinct FoI Act in Scotland and the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR), the latter founded on a European Directive.

However, recent and well-publicized cases in the UK surrounding the disclosure of climate change data, at the University of East Anglia and Queen’s University Belfast, have thrown into relief the importance of reconciling the public right’s to access information and the interests of researchers and their employing institutions. The Independent Climate Change E-mail Review (the Muir Russell Report) in July 2010, and a follow-up inquiry and report from the House of Commons Science and Technology committe in January 2011 have highlighted concerns in this area.

There are very real tensions here which can be a cause of concern to researchers who may feel protective about the data that they create; and also to higher education institutions which are increasingly subject to competitive and commercial pressures. The issues and challenges which FoI raises are described in two useful articles written in early 2011, both of which are attached below:

  • a piece from RIN Director Michael Jubb written (January 2011) for the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals (CILIP);
  • an article by Andrew Charlesworth, Reader in IT Law at the University of Bristol, which first appeared in Computers and Law.

Importantly, JISC has also produced a useful and practical Q&A sheet on FoI and research data.

At the same time, and particularly in some disciplines such as public health and contemporary history, FoI may be a useful tool for obtaining valuable information from public sources - something which researchers are not necessarily aware of either.

It is in this context that a number of organisations, including RIN, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO - see below), JISC and The National Archives have been examining the implications of FoI for the Higher Education research community, notably with regards to finding ways of dealing with the disclosure of research data.

Three regional workshops were thus organised with the aim of providing views and evidence to help inform these deliberations. These events, in Manchester (22 March), London (1 April) and Glasgow (12 April), were intended largely for researchers, including research students and senior research managers, with the purpose developing an understanding of the challenges but also the opportunities represented by FoI, and how they can best be addressed. The workshops had three broad aims:

  • to provide an opportunity for initial evidence-gathering, by seeking views from HE researchers about their practices and concerns;
  • to identify what might be appropriate to inform and support HE researchers in their approach to FoI (for instance, training material, guidance, case studies, etc.);
  • as a corollary to these two points, to engage in awareness-raising.

Crucially, participants were able to contribute directly to the formulation of outputs from the workshops, thereby providing them with a real opportunity to influence the way that FoI impacts on their professional lives.

Since the workshops, in September 2011, ICO has issued its own guidance on the disclosure of research information.

Further information about these events and their outputs can be found here.

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