Academics FOI’led?

One thing that becomes more clear about FOI (and Open Data) as it settles into British society is to expect the unexpected (which, helpfully, gives us lots to study, and in turn, we hope our research helps). In all honesty, would anyone have predicted a ‘zombie’ parade on the streets of Leicester after an FOI request to the local council?

One new development with FOI is a small but growing collection of case law about FOI and universities, which is challenging some basic notions about what academic publishing is and how intellectual property works. Peer review is how academic work is challenged and critiqued, right? Except now, access to data is now a right for anyone. A ‘staggering injustice’ is one academic’s take on a decision by the Information Commissioner regarding his intellectual property. What’s also becoming clearer is some of the premises about FOI – what’s it for, who’s meant to benefit – are being challenged by what’s happening with universities:

  • FOI is about the helping little the guy: except when Tobacco giant Philip Morris uses FOI to get hold of information regarding teenage smokers.

What seems to be happening is a clash between FOI’s broad goals and the unique (and rapidly changing) realties of the university environment. They are multi-million pound institutions with networks that stretch across the globe. Academics share data everyday; peer review challenges ideas. They are in direct competition with each other for students and for research funding.

A lot has been written in recent months this topic, from various angles: epidemiologists in The Lancet have espoused the virtues of sharing data for better public health; FOI advocate Heather Brooke has defended Philip Morris’ requests to Stirling University; the Commons’ Science and Technology committee urged guidance be drawn up to help academics cope with FOI following the climate-gate affair (the ICO has just done so); David Colquhoun fought against the teaching of a BSc in homeopathy at University of Central Lancashire using FOI; George Monbiot has outlined the manifold problems with dissemination via expensive academic journals; Princeton, Harvard and MIT have adopted an open-access policies; Jon Baldwin has questioned why Universities in the UK are covered by FOI at all.

We’re beginning a new project looking at the relationship between universities (and other High Education institutions), academics and researchers, and FOI/EIR. One side of the project is going to look at how academics make use of requests themselves (we’ll blog about this soon), but the other is FOI’s impact on universities. Going beyond the headlines of ‘climate-gate’, we’re hoping to find out what’s really going on. Are these cases one-offs? Or the tip of an iceberg?

We’re asking if FOI  has changed…

  • the policies or practices of universities? Or the relationships with their students, funders and competitors?
  • the way they bid for contracts, or the kind of information they proactively release?
  • what researchers chose to study? Or how they are able to publish and personally gain from their research?
  • the mindset of researchers when it comes to sharing data and results?

We hope to be able to provide some answers to the above questions. We’re going to be interviewing academics and requesters, looking at the case law and analysing the requests themselves. We’ll be adding more information to our project page over the course of the next year. Keep an eye on us (we are, after all, covered by FOI!)