The Freedom of Information Act was created in 2000 to increase the transparency of the public sector and their activities. Under the Act, research data can be requested although copyright and IP rights to the data remain with the original researcher. When a request for information is made, there are normally 20 working days to respond. In the UK, most universities are defined as public authorities and are thus legally obliged to respond to FOI requests. There are, however, some key exemptions to the Act in the UK including:
- Personal data about living individuals cannot be requested, unless it is about you.
- Information that is accessible by other means.
- Information intended for future publication.
- Information that is subject to a confidentiality agreement.
- Information whose release would prejudice legitimate commercial interests.
- In Scotland, information that is part of a finite research programme for which there is a publication schedule and clear intent to publish.
- If the public interest in withholding the information is greater than the public interest disclosing.
Source: Corti et al 2014
There have been a number of high profile cases in which FOI requests have been made against research data being collected by the universities. Data cannot be withheld indefinitely so you should always work under the presumption that if any information is not released the first time round, it can always be requested again. Researchers are therefore advised to detail the ways in which they plan to release their data in a data management plan in order to avoid any unanticipated FOI requests. It is therefore paramount that you plan for FOI and the implications of the Act when creating a data management plan. Writing a plan will also enable you to think more carefully through issues surrounding consent, sharing and ethics. Yet researchers should always remember that the FOI Act can often act as a useful means of data collection in its own right.
At UCL, further guidance on FOI can be found on the Research Integrity pages. If in doubt, researchers are also advised to get in contact with UCL’s specialist Legal Services team.