On university orders, I can't discuss that work when I'm at work

Scholar’s use of company document elicits legal letters and ‘cave-in’ by OU. David Matthews writes

December 6, 2012

An academic was banned from quoting from a company document in any research that he published or disseminated through his university because the institution feared legal action.

Joseph Hanlon, a senior lecturer in development policy and practice at The Open University, said that the institution had shown “no interest in defending academic freedom” and had “caved in” to lawyers acting for an international agribusiness firm.

The restrictions imposed by The Open University meant that in one instance, academics at the institution were unable to send hyperlinks to a paper that Dr Hanlon had delivered at a World Bank conference that quoted from the report.

In early 2011 Dr Hanlon, an expert on Mozambique, used his Open University personal web page to post a report by Quifel Natural Resources, a Portuguese agricultural company, that he had obtained. The document outlined an “agri-business investment opportunity” in the country.

At the request of Quifel’s agents, Dr Hanlon removed the report but replaced it with a summary that challenged the amount of land the company claimed to own in Mozambique.

Then in June 2011, Dr Hanlon received a letter from solicitors acting for DragonKnight Advisors, a financial advisory firm that represents Quifel, alleging that he had breached confidentiality laws by using the report. It ordered him to write an undertaking never to publish the report or information from it in the future.

Lawyers for the National Union of Journalists, of which Dr Hanlon is a member, challenged the solicitors’ arguments. When they did not hear back, they considered the case closed.

However, solicitors for Dragon-Knight Advisors had also made similar complaints about breach of confidence and demands to The Open University the previous month.

Following legal correspondence between the university and DragonKnight, Dr Hanlon was forbidden by the university from quoting extracts of the report via any university website or email address.

He was also banned from including hyperlinks to the report in any Open University publication and from distributing any such links from a university email address.

“There’s a very real risk here that if it becomes known how easily [the university] will cave in…it’s going to create problems for all Open University researchers because all it will take is a letter,” Dr Hanlon said.

Dr Hanlon presented a paper at a World Bank conference in April 2012 in which he quoted from the Quifel report. But because of The Open University’s restrictions, he was able to list on the paper only his affiliations to the London School of Economics and the University of Manchester.

Anne De Roeck, dean of The Open University’s Faculty of Maths, Computing and Technology, said that Dr Hanlon had “used a confidential document as a source in his research, and The Open University cannot publish commercially confidential documents on its website without permission from the owner”.

However, she said the university was “not preventing Dr Hanlon to quote from it, and cite it, in his academic work”.

Neither DragonKnight Advisors nor Quifel responded to Times Higher Education’s request for comment.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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