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ICO issues advice on the disclosure of research information

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News release: 26 September 2011

The Information Commissioner’s Office has today published guidance on freedom of information legislation and research information, 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.

The ICO has recently established a higher education (HE) sector panel made up of representatives from universities and HE organisations from across the UK. The ICO consulted the panel on drawing up the guidance and continues to work closely with them.

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 detailed below:

  • 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 email accounts – The guidance includes a reference to information held on personal email 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 email account. The ICO recommends that official work is stored on properly secure networks rather than personal email accounts.


Notes to Editors

  • The guidance is available in on the ICO’s website.
  • The ICO’s higher education sector panel - Following the recommendation in the Muir Russell report, a round table meeting between the ICO and a cross-section of representatives from universities and organisations in the HE sector was convened on 29 September 2010. Following the roundtable, an ICO-HE sector panel was established to provide a regular forum for discussion to address issues of concern along with a subpanel with a particular focus on research information.
  • The Information Commissioner’s Office upholds information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals.
  • The ICO has specific responsibilities set out in the Data Protection Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Environmental Information Regulations 2004 and Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003.
  • The ICO is on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, and produces a monthly e-newsletter.
  • The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides individuals or organisations with the right to request official information held by a public authority. The Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) provide access to environmental information. The ICO’s policy on enforcing public access to official information and the powers at its disposal are set out here.
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