ICO Advice on Disclosure of Research Information

September 28, 2011

The Information Commissioner’s Office published guidance on freedom of information legislation and research information on 23 September, aimed specifically at public authorities in the higher education sector.

The guidance has been put together following recommendations made in the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on the disclosure of data about climate change involving the University of East Anglia. It aims to increase academics’ and researchers’ understanding of freedom of information legislation and to help practitioners to comply with their legal obligations. SCL members may recall a considered analysis of the issue by Andrew Charlesworth (see related item).

The ICO’s Head of Policy Delivery, Steve Wood, said:

‘It is important that all higher education institutions comply with their obligations under freedom of information legislation. However, we appreciate the distinctive challenges that requests can pose. This guidance should help institutions to understand when they can apply exemptions to protect important research information.’

Key advice listed in the guidance is as follows:

  • The public interest test – The guidance highlights the importance of the public interest test and factors in favour of disclosure that should be considered by higher education institutions.
  • Commercial information – Many universities and research institutes work in partnership with third parties and will hold commercially sensitive information. The guidance makes clear that disclosures under FOI should not undermine their ability to do this. If there is a genuine need to protect information from disclosure, it can be refused.
  • Free and frank discussion – The guidance acknowledges the importance of academics and researchers being able to exchange views internally and to formulate and debate opinions relating to research away from external scrutiny. Protection for this type of information is provided by section 36 of the Act (prejudice to the conduct of public affairs). 
  • Vexatious requests – While most requesters use the legislation responsibly, there is occasionally some misuse of the rights provided by the law – or circumstances where requests become overly burdensome; disrupt a public authority’s ability to perform their core functions, or appear to be part of an intention to disrupt or attack the public authority’s performance. The guidance highlights the provisions under freedom of information legislation which give some exceptions to the duty to deal with such requests.
  • Proactive disclosure – A number of useful sector led initiatives on openness and research data, such as the RCUK Common Principles on Data Policy and ESRC’S guidance on data management plans demonstrate an acceptance in making research data available and a commitment to openness and transparency in the sector. The guidance aims to complement the work the sector is already doing by emphasising the benefits of proactive disclosure of information and acknowledging the public interest in their work.
  • Personal e-mail accounts – The guidance includes a reference to information held on personal e-mail accounts and confirms that if it is related to public authority business then it can be subject to disclosure under the legislation. When searching for information in response to requests, staff should consider if it is appropriate to ask colleagues if information is held in a personal e-mail account. The ICO recommends that official work is stored on properly secure networks rather than personal e-mail accounts.