The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is being used in ways that its creators did not intend, and universities are bearing the cost.
While the act aims to make the functioning of government (and government-funded organisations such as universities) more open, an unintended consequence is that researchers may be forced to hand over unpublished data.
The protection of freedoms bill, now in its final parliamentary stages, takes this a dangerous step further by extending the act to cover sets of research data in electronic form, even where they are incomplete or unverified.
FoI requests are an increasing headache for universities. At my institution, the number of requests has risen from 46 in 2007 to 132 last year, costing an estimated £185,000 in staff time. Furthermore, they are increasingly straying into research areas, and some institutions would say that this has caused problems already. For example, a research group at the University of Oxford spent a year rebutting a request for data from a big nationwide health study, submitted by a company with a significant commercial interest. Oxford incurred hefty legal costs in the process.
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