Academic and FOI … A tale of confused morals and the law

Smoking: But is there a smoking gun?
Smoking: But is there a smoking gun?

Universities have a funny attitude to FOI, don’t they? On one hand, academics wouldn’t think twice about using it as part of research, but should their research be subject to an FOI request, all hell can break loose. Just ask the University of East Anglia.

Stirling University is the latest university to have a problem with the use of FOI to get access to research data. The data concerned relates to research into the attitudes of teenage smokers, and has been compiled by a department at Stirling University which is funded largely by Cancer Research UK.

The news line in this comes from who it is asking for the data under FOI. The requests originates from Philip Morris International. Who? They make Marlboro cigarettes. Ah, now you see!

The case has already been to the Scottish Information Commissioner, after Stirling University tried to dismiss the FOI request on the grounds it was vexatious. The Scottish Information Commissioner rejected the University’s decision, and told the university to respond properly to the request.

Stirling University’s way of dealing with it appears to be to try and create merry mayhem about it, rather than actually come up with lawful reasons for not releasing it. The director of the centre which does the research, Gerard Hastings, said:

“They wanted everything we had ever done on this.

“These are confidential comments about how youngsters feel about tobacco marketing. This is the sort of research that would get a tobacco company into trouble if it did it itself.

“What is more, these kids have been reassured that only bona fide researchers will have access to their data. No way can Philip Morris fit into that definition.”

Prof Hastings was on Five Live yesterday. He also chucked into the mix the fact that FOI wasn’t intended for big business to use and that it was unfair that his 15-strong team were ‘spending months of their time dealing with an FOI request from a company which employs thousands rather than carrying out research.’

He trotted out a well-worn, but rarely attributed, tobacco industry quote that ‘unless we get the next generation hooked on cigarettes, we’re doomed’ and asked what reason a firm ‘whose products lead to the death of one in two of their customers’ would want with the research.

Then there was the fact his centre was sponsored by Cancer Research UK, a charity ‘with finite resources which wants its money spent well, not on FOI requests.’ Personally, I’d rather the money I donate to Cancer Research UK went on researching new cancer drugs and treatments, not researching why people smoke.

This case has received a fair amount of media attention. It’s a victory for the PR department at Stirling University. It is not, however, a sensible discussion about FOI. The Guardian, for example, says the company is ‘demanding’ the research. Really? Demanding? Does The Guardian always demand information under FOI?

Hastings has presented a very good David v Goliath picture from which journalists can create a story. However, in doing so, he misses the point that he is supposed to be applicant blind to FOI requests. In short, there is no reason to treat an application from a tobacco company any differently than if it came from anyone else.

If his work would really be jeopardised by revealing the information from the teenagers, even anonymised, then surely the exemptions relating to breach of confidentiality should apply. In short, rather than kicking up a stink, just get on and find a proper reason for refusing it.

As a spokesman for the Information Commissioner said:

“All he [the commissioner] has done is say: ‘You need to deal with this because it is a valid request.’ But the university could still refuse it on other grounds.”

As it is, in the rush to turn a tobacco company into a pantomime villain – which, admittedly, a tobacco company is a natural fit for – Hastings and his team have revealed what many of us suspect: That FOI requests often are treated in a way which is anything but applicant blind.

There are other aspects to this case which are interesting. Should research produced by unversities but paid for, in the main, by a private organisation – in this case, Cancer Research UK, be subject to FOI? My gut feeling is that yes, they should – even if the research is privately paid for, the academics work in an environment which relies on public sector funding (especially in Scotland) and their work is often used to shape government policy.

That, presumably, is certainly what Cancer Research UK would hope would come from investing in research – evidence they can present to government to get government policy changed.

Having work produced within an academic setting gives the result added credibility – credibility which is based, in part, on the fact that work is independently scrutinised. That scrutiny traditionally comes via peer review, but FOI allows anyone to scrutinise it. Cancer Research UK and Hastings should welcome the interest of a tobacco company.

Kicking up such a stink – and I suspect it’s the kicking up of a stink which has diverted the attention of the 15 staff, not the prospect of having to answer it – leads to two questions: What have they got to hide? The answer, in all likelihood, is nothing … but on issues such as smoking, and climate change for that matter, perception is often as important as the reality.

And what if the roles were reversed? Would anyone have such a problem with Cancer Research UK using FOI to get university research funded by a tobacco company? I think not.


4 thoughts on “Academic and FOI … A tale of confused morals and the law

  1. To make the University’s refusal look even more daft Philip Morris have even come out and said they don’t want any personal information – the Uni can withold anything confidential!!

    A clear case of the Uni answering without thinking and making more work for themselves.

    1. Quite agree. A little less time spent moaning and a bit more time dealing with it quickly would be a much more suitable way to spend donations from Cancer Research!

  2. The fact is as potentially distasteful as it is for a cancer charity funded research unit to be providing information to a tobacco manufacturer that doesn’t get around the fact FOI is applicant blind.

    in essence it is no different to the round robin requests that I, and most of my colleagues doing FOI, get from commercial organisations asking for details of contracts or contact details for procurement managers etc. We don’t like them, they are time consuming and we know what the information will be used for but despite this we are required to respond.

    That these requests aren’t really in the spirit of what the lawmakers intended is neither here nor there, like it or not we have to reply.

    The thing is in the time they have spent complaining the University could probably have contructed a more appropriate refusal that may well be/have been supported by the Scottish Commissioner.

  3. Actually, Universities like to see research conducted professionally and properly – many forms of research require ethical approval and, usually, ethically approved research requires that the participants are ASKED to participate and given the opportunity to OPT OUT of the research at any time – if the research fails to meet its ethical requirements, it may be not be valid research. FOI does not provide participants with the opportunity to decline or opt-out and is therefore at odds with ethical requirements for research.

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