Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, welcomes the new exemption

Academics at universities across the country will have their unpublished ongoing research protected from being made public, the Government has said. 

In a move supported by a leading university body the Government said an exemption will be added to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which allows universities to withhold any pre-publication research

The announcement came in a response to the Justice Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny of the FOIA where concerns were raised about the publication of the research.

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, which represents the country’s universities, said it was “excellent” news and provides recognition needed to “protect the integrity of UK research”.

“The promised exemption, which will be subject to the public-interest test, will provide clarity and certainty for researchers that they will have the opportunity to validate and analyse their results, before putting them into the public domain,” she said.

“UK researchers deserve to be able to complete and publish their research before releasing the data for others to scrutinise.”

Under the FOI act, which allows anyone to ask a public authority for information, it has been possible to ask for the data collected by researchers at universities across the country. The aim of the new exemption will be to stop the publication of incomplete research data, which could be used by competitors or commercial organisations. It has been possible for universities to withhold the information by using different exemptions.

The Government in its response to the inquiry, to see if the act was working effectively, said the new exemption, recommended under Section 22 of the act, would provide “clarity and reassurance” to those working in the Higher Education sector.

They said: “We accept that despite the wide applicability of existing exemptions, the lack of a dedicated research exemption can at least give the impression that FOIA does not provide adequate protection.”

Elsewhere in its response Government agreed with the committee that universities should remain subject to the Act and that it has been a benefit to universities in terms of openness.

“Publicly funded universities carry out important public functions and it is important that they should be accountable through FOIA,” they said.

During the inquiry academics raised worries that publishing research data early could hamper their work.

Dr Rodney Eastwood, Registrar of Imperial College London, who was representing the 24 leading Russell Group universities, told the inquiry that making the research public before it was intended to be risked the chance of prejudicing the results.

He said: “The university will clearly publish the research-the whole point of a university is to publish its research and to make it available, but only after all that has been done and it has been peer-reviewed.

“Publishing bits of it prematurely runs the big risk of the recipient, the public, drawing the wrong conclusions.”

The Government’s also said it would be looking for ways to reduce the cost of the Act, which came into force in 2005, on public authorities.

I am a journalist and author. I am a staff writer at the UK edition of WIRED magazine and in 2015 my book, Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, was published. I created FOI Directory in 2012.