THE Scholarly Web

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January 26, 2012

The protection of freedoms bill, debated in the House of Lords earlier this month, proposes amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, and the opportunity to win concessions for universities has not gone unnoticed.

There have been a string of cases in which universities have felt that the FoI Act has been used to their detriment, including by climate-change sceptics who had targeted the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia before the "Climategate" hacking scandal in 2009.

The issue is tackled in a blog posting by Universities UK, in which the vice-chancellors' group argues that "open debate and transparency in research are very important - but the Freedom of Information Act is the wrong tool for the job".

In particular, it is seeking an exemption for pre-publication research from FoI requests, something that it says is already law in Scotland and the US.

UUK believes that the government did not envisage how universities would be affected when it passed the FoI Act in 2000.

It adds tersely: "In any case, since that time the proportion of funding universities get from public sources has fallen considerably, and will continue to fall, making their inclusion within the definition of 'public authorities' all the more strange."

In a response to the blog, Paul Gibbons, information compliance manager at the School of Oriental and African Studies, questions UUK's reasoning.

Writing on the FOI Man blog, he says that the protections sought by UUK are already in place.

"The new exemption would in practice be an amendment of Section 22 of the FoI Act, which gives a qualified exemption protecting information that is intended for future publication," he writes.

"Section 22 already protects information that an organisation intends to publish in the future. That's one exemption universities could use to protect research in advance of publication.

"Are there any other exemptions that might apply? Well, if the research contains commercially sensitive information or trade secrets, there's an exemption at Section 43 that you might have heard of. If it contains sensitive personal information, Section 40[2] will almost certainly apply, and if it has been provided by a third party during the course of research, then Section 41 might also be useful. How many exemptions [does] UUK think we need to provide comprehensive protection of pre-publication data?"

Having outlined the existing protections, Mr Gibbons ponders why UUK is so keen to press the issue. "Perhaps there are several ICO [Information Commissioner's Office] decisions which make clear...existing exemptions aren't sufficient?" he suggests.

However, after looking through the records, he found only three cases in which higher education institutions had used the existing exemptions to try to protect research information.

He finishes with a question: do universities want to be seen as "modern, progressive organisations, engaged with the world at large"? If they "stubbornly refuse to accept and embrace FoI as a method of engaging with the world", he warns, people will have an increasingly dim view of them.

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to john.elmes@tsleducation.com

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