Whose freedom is it?

In March 2010, an animal rights activist sent Freedom of Information requests to universities for details of experiments conducted on animals.

“We’re putting the FOIs in just to find out what is happening with vivisection at the universities. If they’ve got nothing to hide, then it’s not a problem for them to put the information out there,” the activist told The Guardian.

The underlying statement was clear: if they don’t disclose their research, they are probably doing something worth hiding, and whatever information they did disclose would be used to protest against them — a Catch-22 scenario.

The FOI law has become a preferred tool of anyone involved in politics — and it is not surprising, as obscurity is one of the main characteristics of an undemocratic government. No one can argue against the right to government transparency in the UK – but does it trump academic freedom?

Last month, the president of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, said FOI was being used by organised campaigns as a tool to intimidate some scientists and that the current law should be revised. He said this after the launch of a Royal Society study meant to examine ways of improving access to scientific data.

“I have been told of some researchers who are getting lots of requests for, among other things, all drafts of scientific papers prior to their publication in journals, with annotations, explaining why changes were made between successive versions. If it is true, it will consume a huge amount of time. And it’s intimidating,” Nurse told The Guardian, adding that some requests may have been intended to simply stop scientists from working.

Nurse may have been referring to the University of East Anglia’s ‘Climategate’ scandal, where e-mails showing scientists trying to avoid FOI requests – some by climate change sceptics were hacked and revealed.

The Unit, headed by Professor Phil Jones, was flooded with requests. Some e-mails showed scientists figuring out ways to sidestep them, while others showed them desperate to stop responding and get back to work.

“This is all about academic freedom. I’m just a humble scientist trying to do research,” Jones told Martin Rosenbaum, who writes the BBC’s Open Secrets Blog about Freedom of Information.

Nurse is not the only one who thinks FOI and academic freedom are often mutually exclusive. In April, the Mackinac Centre, a policy research group with libertarian and conservative influences, filed requests with the University of Wisconsin and Michigan State University asking for e-mails that mention collective bargaining disputes. This prompted Ian Robinson, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan, to collect 1600 signatures on a petition for academic freedom.

In Virginia, the American Association of University Professors, the Virginia ACLU, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and nine other groups called on the University of Virginia to “[balance] the interests in public disclosure against the public interest in academic freedom”. This was in response to a FOI request on the work of climate scientist Michael Mann.

On the other hand, academics immersed in controversial research projects such as climate change, or have contentious methodology — animal testing — are the usually the ones receiving a large amount of requests. Besides, these bodies generate much of the data circulated through newspapers, magazines, blogs — in other words, it is the data we all feed on. Shouldn’t it be the public’s right to scrutinise their scientific methods?

Besides, scientists have safeguards within the law to protect them from vexatious requests, said Maurice Frankel, the Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in a letter to The Guardian, responding to Nurse’s statement.

“Unreasonable requests for all pre-publication drafts of scientific papers can be refused under an exemption for information due for future publication,” he said.

“Explanations of why changes to successive drafts were made do not have to be provided unless they exist in writing. Multiple related requests from different people, if they are co-ordinated, can be refused if the combined cost of answering exceeds the act’s cost limit,” he said.

Hiding information may also make things worse for scientists, Frankel said.

“It was the misguided attempt to deny ammunition to critics that led to the [University of East Anglia] Climategate fiasco,” he said.

The hacking of CRU’s e-mail was reportedly triggered by the institution’s sidestepping of FOI requests – people who believed their right to obtain information was being trampled on (others question whether the Russian or the Chinese government is the real culprit).

Having the right to refuse information when it clashes with some scientists’ own freedoms seems like the optimal way to guarantee the rights of the requester and the provider of information simultaneously. And it’s already provisioned in the law. But do the safeguards really help academics studying controversial matters?

Whether academics deny or provide ammunition to their critics, they will be criticised or harassed nonetheless. Regardless of whether the academic is acting within the law, not providing information can turn into a self-directed bullet.

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