In its response to a report on the act by the Commons Justice Committee, the government said that this would give academics “additional clarity and reassurance”.
Universities UK has campaigned for an exemption because it feared that researchers could use the act to “scoop” raw experimental data from rivals and beat them to publication.
UUK has also expressed concerns that the act could allow research that had not been through the peer-review process to be interpreted incorrectly by journalists or members of the public, leading to problems such as baseless health scares.
It has also warned that businesses might use the act to access valuable research being conducted by commercial competitors in conjunction with universities before patents had been taken out.
The exemption had been recommended by the Justice Committee in its report Post-legislative Scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which was published in July.
The response from the Ministry of Justice, released on 3 December, acknowledges that “the lack of a dedicated research exemption can at least give the impression that FoIA does not provide adequate protection”, although it points out that the act already contains a number of exemptions that could be used to protect pre-publication research.
The change will bring the law in England and Wales in line with Scotland, which has an exemption.
Nicola Dandridge, UUK chief executive, called the change “excellent news”. She said: “The promised exemption, which will be subject to the public-interest test, will provide clarity and certainty for researchers that they will have the opportunity to validate and analyse their results before putting them into the public domain.”
In their submissions to the Justice Committee report, some universities had argued that they should not be subject to the act. However, the Ministry of Justice’s response rejected this and affirmed that “publicly funded universities should remain subject to [the] FoIA”.