Keep research away from prying FoIs, say MPs

A cross-party group of MPs has recommended a change in the law to prevent unpublished research data being released under the Freedom of Information Act.

July 27, 2012

The exemption should be introduced to "protect ongoing research", the Justice Committee said in a report, Post-Legislative Scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, that was released yesterday.

Universities UK has been campaigning for such a change to the act on a number of grounds.

It has argued that researchers could use information gained from an FoI request to "scoop" data from rivals and beat them to publication, undermining the incentive for research.

It has also warned that businesses could use the act to access valuable research being conducted by commercial competitors and universities before patents can be taken out.

UUK has also raised the prospect that data could be released and then misinterpreted and misused by the public before it has been subjected to scholarly analysis and peer review.

"To ensure the continuing competitiveness of the university sector in England and Wales, we recommend the pre-publication exemption be amended to bring it in line with the similar provision in the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002," the MPs' report recommends.

Scotland has a specific exemption for pre-publication research.

Paul Gibbons, a Freedom of Information campaigner and author of the FOI Man blog, said that he thought there was "no real need" for a new exemption because "existing exemptions could be utilised" to protect research. Nevertheless, he added: "I can't see it doing much harm."

A number of universities and higher education mission groups had complained that they were not on a level playing field with private providers, which are not subject to the act even though they compete with universities for student places.

Durham University lobbied for universities to be exempt from the act, while the University of Bath argued that it should be applicable only when it involves universities using public money.

However, the report says that universities should remain subject to the Freedom of Information Act because they are "an important part of the public realm, and we believe that they are generally regarded by the public and by those working in universities as important public institutions."

Regarding private providers, the report says that "if public-sector bodies are found to be at a disadvantage", the act should be "amended or another model found to protect such commercial interests".

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "With universities now receiving a significant and growing amount of funding from private sources, this has significant implications for the way in which Freedom of Information legislation is applied.

"We must ensure that there is a level playing field in relation to private higher education providers, and we support calls for this area to be reviewed."

The report rejects introducing charges for requests because this would "deter requests with a strong public interest and would defeat the purposes of the act, while fees introduced for commercial and media organisations could be circumvented".

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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