Freedom of Information Act requests for the disclosure of details of research committee meetings should not trump the need to protect academic freedom, a judicial tribunal ruled this week.
The tribunal said that both the Information Commissioner and Queen Mary University of London were correct not to accede to demands to open up minutes of the highly controversial, £5m PACE Trial to pubic scrutiny.
In a reserved judgement handed down on Thursday (August 22), Judge Christopher Hughes and two lay colleagues sitting as a first-tier Information Rights Tribunal said the need to underpin academic freedom overrode the rights of individuals under the Freedom of Information Act to highly detailed disclosures about the way research decisions are made.
They dismissed an appeal by John Mitchell, who had made an FoI request for Queen Mary to publish minutes of the PACE Trial steering committee and management groups, despite being aware that an identical request had already been rejected.
According to evidence seen by the Tribunal, Mr Mitchell wanted to know why there were differences between outcomes predicted in the trial protocol and the ultimate results. Professor Peter White, one of the lead investigators, informed the tribunal that Mr Mitchell also had implied there was collusion between government, funders or researchers (to what end was not explained in the judgement).
Judge Hughes wrote: “The tribunal considers that the underpinning given to academic freedom within both the UK State Law and Human Rights Conventions should be fully recognised and given appropriate weight in considering applications such as this.”
“In a real sense, the structures of a university are designed to support this dissemination of information in the most effective means possible, in particular the dissemination of research through the processes of publication in scientific journals. A parallel process of dissemination through FoIA is unlikely to be as effective or robust as the process of lectures, seminars, conferences and publications which are the lifeblood of the university.
“They are likely to be a diversion from the effective evaluation, publication and scrutiny of research through the academic processes.”
It was the view of the tribunal that the Commissioner could have used section 14 of the Act to strike out the appeal as a vexatious complaint.
The full tribunal ruling can be downloaded HERE
College was right not to disclose deliberations about chronic fatigue treatment trial, tribunal rules | British Medical Journal, 30 August 2013 (includes information about the PACE Trial). Download article HERE.