Uncovering buried treasure

The Freedom of Information Act could be a boon to scholars seeking hidden data. Zoe Corbyn reports

October 23, 2008

Scholars may be missing out on a "treasure trove" of research material because they are failing to exploit freedom of information law.

This is the view of a small group of academics who have successfully used the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act to access previously secret research material, and who have come together to share their experiences.

They met up last month at a workshop held by the Research Information Network (RIN) to raise awareness of the Act as a "resource discovery tool".

"A couple of us thought - why aren't researchers making more use of this? This is something we should be looking into," said workshop organiser Elizabeth Shepherd, an academic from the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies at University College London, who researches the FoI Act. She describes the Act as an "extra way" of accessing information and one certainly worth bearing in mind.

Under the Act, which came into force in full in January 2005, any member of the public - which includes researchers - has the right to request a vast range of information from more than 100,000 public bodies across the UK, including government departments, schools, police and councils.

But Dr Shepherd said that while pressure groups and journalists may have been quick to grasp the possibilities the Act offers, academics have been slower on the uptake.

"It is not yet part of the mindset, the working assumptions, the traditions of academic researchers," she said.

The keynote address for the RIN event was given by Duncan Tanner, director of the Welsh Institute for Social and Cultural Affairs at Bangor University. The professor of history uses the Act extensively for his own research and gives talks to public archivists about working with academics. He has just won a grant of £50,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to conduct workshops for postgraduate students on how to use the legislation. The workshops will begin next year at UCL and the University of Salford.

He says using the Act can be a complex process, but adds that it is a "potential treasure trove" for material not yet in the public domain.

Professor Tanner thinks researchers should be making more use of the Act, and that historians and social science researchers could benefit greatly. Historians, for example, could use it to work on recent central government records rather than having to wait 30 years for material to be released (as was previously the case).

Public policy researchers could also use it to obtain valuable data sets, he said. For example, health policy academics in Scotland looking at the local incidence of cancer used the Act to obtain information about mobile phone masts in the area.

"It is very easy to access numbers using the FoI," he said.

So how should those interested in using the FoI Act to obtain research material proceed?

Consult the website of the relevant public authority and go for it, Dr Shepherd advised. To improve the likelihood of success, researchers should be extremely specific about what they want, which she admits can be difficult when research questions are by nature fairly broad and researchers will probably want access to reams of material.

She suggests that researchers may be better off engaging informally with the authority to see if it will provide a more general privileged access to the information - the approach typically used by researchers in the past and the only one that will yield large numbers of files.

"There are times when it is better to use FoI and times when it is better to engage in a dialogue with people who hold the records," said Dr Shepherd.

Meanwhile, Professor Tanner is due to head to Cardiff to live out a researcher's dream. Following an FoI request to the Welsh Office for material related to Welsh devolution, the authority has taken the rare step of releasing its files "proactively". He has been invited in to view what is on offer and discuss what he would like to have access to.

"This is a great example of how FoI can really work," said Professor Tanner.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

- See www.rin.ac.uk/foi-workshop

GET STUCK IN: TIPS ON USING THE FOI ACT

  • Understand how records are managed and organised in the authority you want to make your request to. To narrow down your request, start by asking for a file list.
  • Be specific about the material you want. If you ask for too much, it could be refused.
  • Be aware of time-scales. It can take months and even years to obtain the information.
  • Get help and advice from other researchers who have used the FoI successfully and share your own experiences.
  • Although it is not specifically for academics, it may be useful to visit the website WhatDoTheyKnow.com to view other FoI requests or to log your own.
  • The Information Commissioner's Office (www.ico.gov.uk) and the Campaign for Freedom of Information (www.cfoi.org.uk) also give advice.

Tips courtesy of Elizabeth Shepherd and Duncan Tanner.

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