Up In Smoke? University of Stirling vs. Philip Morris

There has been more controversy over access to research information through FOI today. The University of  Stirling has protested against the tobacco giant Philip Morris making FOI requests for details about its research, a large scale study into the effects of smoking involving 6,000 people between the age of 13 and 24. The Scottish Information Commissioner did not uphold the appeal by the University (see the decisions here and here). The information has not yet been released.

This is the latest example of FOI being used to access ongoing research data following on from the UEA Climate gate scandal. This was recently discussed at a series of workshops across the UK.

The concern is that, as with the data on climate change, exposing certain parts of the study or having access to the raw data before the findings are analysed can be used by those with an agenda to misrepresent or undermine research. One of the academics has claimed the release would have enormous implications for academic freedom and has raised concerns over protecting the privacy of those involved. Interestingly, unlike FOI in the UK, the Scottish FOI Act contains an exemption for research that is ongoing, though it appears it has never been used.

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.

Climategate: just the tip of the iceberg?

“Climategate” hit the news again last month with the publication of the Select Committee Report, but beneath the climate-sceptics and the angry headlines lurks another problem: what does FOI mean for universities?

Richard Thomas, the former Information Commissioner, summed up the position under the FOIA when he spoke at the latest inquiry into the scandal. He said: “[t]he fact that FOIA requests relate to complex scientific data does not detract from the proposition [that FOI improves accountability and good governance] or excuse non-compliance”. FOI legislation includes exceptions for information that is intended for future publication, as well as where commercial interests may be harmed, but it is not yet clear what these exceptions cover in academia. Lack of clarity is a problem in itself, but it is not alone.

First, there are the administrative burdens and costs in the wake of sizable cuts in the education sector. Websites such as academicfoi.com are becoming involved in investigating universities and their employment practices as well as those interested in the work of academic staff. With academic institutions becoming the target of FOI in themselves as well as for their research, their workload could well increase. This scrutiny may increase standards, but it has other effects.

On average, universities have less than the equivalent of one full time member of staff dealing with ‘FOI issues’, with universities struggling to respond within time limits[1].

If universities are to maintain records to the standard required to fulfil requests, then this will require either more staff, or for current staff to shift their attention. The choice between increased costs or decreased services will not be easy in the current climate.

Second, while research councils are encouraging academics to share data, the idea is less than welcome among many researchers. Professor Mike Baillie, in particular, has been scathing about the idea that his data is up for grabs for the ‘price of a stamp’: “[w]e are the ones who trudged miles over bogs and fields carrying chain saws. We prepared the samples and- using quite a lot of expertise and judgment- we measured the ring patterns”. Is it right that FOI can make this hard work of researchers public property? What is the effect on copyright and how will it apply to private funding?

On the other hand, while life may be harder for academics facing FOI requests, it also creates new opportunities. Researchers at the University of Manchester have used FOI to find that Muslim terrorists are no more likely to come from areas with large Muslim populations than anywhere else, while the New Scientist scrutinised the preparedness of the MOD for nuclear accidents.

Right now there are more questions than answers, but what is clear is that clarity is needed. The higher education sphere is both a user of and subject to FOI, and it needs to work out what this means and adapt. It is with this in mind that the Research Information Network, in association with several other organisations, is running a series of workshops next month to examine the implications of FOI for the higher education research community. The Constitution Unit will be contributing to these events, and the hope is that this is the first step in working out what FOI means for the academic sphere.

[1] Joint Information Systems Committee infoNet, GuildHE and Universities UK. 2009. Information Legislation and Management Survey 2009 (http://www.jiscinfonet.ac.uk/foi-survey/2009/im-survey.pdf)