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Research ‘needs exemption from freedom of information act’ say UK politicians

A cross-party group of politicians has recommended that England’s laws on freedom of information be amended to protect universities from having to release data prematurely.

UK universities have complained in the past that the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act can be used to force the release of research findings and data before they are ready for publication. In a report released today, Parliament’s Justice Committee agrees, saying a ‘pre-publication exemption’ should be brought in. Scotland already has such an exemption, and extending it to England and Wales is required to “protect ongoing research” says the committee, which has been conducting an inquiry into how well the act is working.

Under the current legislation, information “intended for future publication” is exempt, but universities say that this is not enough to protect research when a future publication date is unclear. “Releasing complex scientific results too early and out of context risks leaving our academics’ work open to damaging misinterpretation,” Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents a number of leading research universities, said in a statement.

Universities have had a troubled relationship with the FOI Act in recent times. Newcastle University has had run-ins with animal-rights activists who have used the act to discover information about work by the university’s researchers (see the animal rights take on this and the other side).

The University of East Anglia (UEA) has also faced a plethora of FOI requests relating to climate data. After scores of e-mails from UEA researchers were stolen and posted online, the body that investigates disagreements over the FOI act ruled that the university had indeed broken the rules, but that it was too late to do anything about it, as any action should be taken within six months of the offence (see: ‘Climate row university ‘broke law on information disclosures’).

Another recommendation in the Justice Committee’s report today is that this time limit is eliminated.


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