I’ve just been reading the Information Commissioner’s guidance for the higher education sector (in the UK outwith Scotland) on freedom of information and research. Andrew Charlesworth and I wrote a FAQ on FoI for research data for JISC, last year. To be honest, most of the FAQ consisted of the advice to consult your FoI officer if you have a request; this is essential because the exemptions are rather complicated, and many are subject to a public interest test.
Scotland has a separate FoI Act, which has a specific exemption (section 27(2) of the relevant Act) relating to research data. The FoI Act for the rest of the UK does not have a similar exemption. This means that if someone requests access to your research data, there may be problems denying this request (even before your research is completed). However, we pointed out in our FAQ (and the Information Commissioner makes the same point), that where there is a plan to publish the data, then it is exempt. The ICO’s guidance says:
“Section 22 of the FOIA provides an exemption from the right to know if the information requested by an applicant is intended for future publication. To be covered by the exemption, the information must be held with the intention of publication at the time the request was made. It will not be permissible to argue an intention to publish the information when that decision was only made after the request was made. It is not, however, necessary to have set a publication date.”
The guidance goes on:
“Data management plans are useful tools that will assist you in planning disclosure of information and pre-empting information requests. You may be able to reduce the number of requests for information and the number of times upon which you may need to rely on section 22 by providing the public with a clear description of planned publications, including a publication timetable.”
So, simply by having a data management plan in which you outline your plans for publishing your data (usually at or shortly after the end of your project), you can exempt your team from premature disclosure. Simples! It must be a real intention, though.
(I understand that an exemption for the ROTUK similar to the Scottish exemption is currently being debated, but I don’t know what the chances of success are, or when any changes would come into effect.)