When Michael Baillie began analysing the rings in Irish oak trees more than 30 years ago, the long reach of the Freedom of Information Act in Britain was years away.
But three decades on, the FoI laws have been used by a science blogger, Douglas Keenan, to obtain data collected by the emeritus professor of palaeoecology at Queen's University Belfast over the course of a career investigating catastrophic environmental events.
After a three-year battle to get the university to release the data, some of which are yet to be published by the academic himself, Dr Keenan won a ruling from the Information Commissioner in April that said that Queen's owned the data and must release it.
The precedent has important implications for academics, raising issues similar to those highlighted in last week's report by Sir Muir Russell into the so-called Climategate affair at the University of East Anglia.
Until now, researchers have published data at the time of their choosing, through the normal academic channels and in the context of the overall objectives of their work.
The decision in the Queen's case indicates that any interested party can use FoI laws to request any data belonging to a UK university, whether they form part of an academic's published work or whether they are still raw.
Professor Baillie said the Information Commissioner's ruling demonstrated how ill-equipped universities were to deal with the dilemmas this posed. "I think the problem is that no one has ever defined university data, either for academics like me or for the university as an institution."
He said his professional relationship with Queen's had been formed in a less managerial age, one untroubled by modern demands for public accountability.
"There was nothing in our old academic contracts about data and responsibility for data," he said, adding that ownership of research data had never been discussed.
"As far as we were concerned, it was our data because the issue of who owned them never arose: the data belonged to the people who made the measurements," he explained.
This attitude is no longer acceptable, according to the Russell report, which criticised UEA for not being open enough with climate change sceptics who requested information under FoI legislation. It said the university had "failed to recognise not only the significance of statutory requirements (under the FoI Act), but also the risks to the reputation of the university and, indeed, to the credibility of UK climate science".
However, the Information Commissioner's decision in the Queen's case raises concerns that third parties could disrupt projects, with FoI requests potentially forcing the early release of data gathered as part of longitudinal research.
The Joint Information Systems Committee, which supports the use of IT in UK higher education, has commissioned a consultancy firm to produce guidance on the issue, which is due to be published in September.
"The big lesson is that a lot of the rules governing what people thought were exemptions didn't stand up to analysis by the Information Commissioner's office," said Simon Hodson, programme manager at Jisc.
The demand for Professor Baillie's data has been a tough lesson for the sector in underlining the need for proper guidance on the issue.
The professor explained: "An FoI request granted by the commissioner leaves the university on the back foot. It also leaves people like me with loads of data that we are still exploiting on the back foot. Clearly each university needs to have a definite policy on the release of research data."
INTERNATIONAL PRE-PUBLISHING FREE-FOR-ALL
The disclosure of research data before publication is a potential problem for academics in publicly funded universities across the world.
Most countries, from Australia to Georgia, have some form of freedom of information legislation in place, but its range and remit varies greatly.
In the US, the 1966 Freedom of Information Act and 1996 Electronic Freedom of Information Act cover only federal institutions, but further acts passed at state level can apply to publicly funded bodies including universities.
Similarly in Australia, after the Freedom of Information Act 1982, all states and territories passed their own FoI laws, which apply locally.
And in Estonia, the Public Information Act of 2000 extends to all "holders of information", which also covers those providing public services including health and education.
Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in the UK, said that the ruling in the case of Michael Baillie would have a ripple effect internationally.
"Universities around the world are likely to face requests for raw data if it hasn't been published so far," he said.
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