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‘Unpublished’ research to be exempt from FOI requests

Universities win campaign for first-to-publish right

The UK government has agreed to amend the Freedom of Information Act so that universities are not compelled to release unpublished research data, it said on 3 December.

The move follows a recommendation to that effect by a House of Commons Justice Committee report in July, as well as much lobbying from researchers.

In their evidence to the committee, several institutions and groups called for a research exemption amendment, claiming that the legislation as it stands leaves researchers vulnerable to having to release data that is incomplete or that has not undergone peer review.

They also said the status quo caused difficulties in collaborating with private companies and that early release of information ran the risk of private providers obtaining “commercially sensitive information” from their public competitors.

A similar exemption to the one demanded by campaigners exists in Scotland, and the committee recommended that England and Wales follow.

In its 3 December response to this report, the government said it “recognises that the adoption of a qualified exemption for research would provide additional clarity and reassurance, both to higher education institutions and non-public sector research partners. We accept that despite the wide applicability of existing exemptions, the lack of a dedicated research exemption can at least give the impression that FOIA does not provide adequate protection.

“On balance, therefore, the government is minded to amend FOIA to introduce a dedicated exemption, subject to both a prejudice and public interest test, as recommended by the [Justice] Committee. The government shares the committee’s view that this would constitute a proportionate response to the concerns expressed.”

Vivienne Stern, head of political affairs at the vice-chancellors’ group, Universities UK, welcomed the plans.

“It is exactly what we asked the government to do,” she told Research Fortnight. “This is a very specific, very limited response to a real concern … It should be for the originating researcher to chose the moment of first publication.”

Stern said that the exemption was not in conflict with the general momentum towards transparency in higher education.

“This isn’t about transparency, it’s about timing,” she said.

The exemption is expected to “protect ongoing research”, according to the government, implying that data relating to published research will remain subject to FOI.

The government’s plans are likely to be of concern to other campaigners, especially those opposed to the use of animals in research. The exemption would block animal rights campaigners from receiving information about ongoing research.

In February, Home Office minister Oliver Eden rejected a proposal to make the amendment on the grounds that that there was “little evidence” to support it.