FOI and researchers: an update

October 25, 2010

Following on from our earlier post, ‘Panic?  What Panic?  FOI and researchers‘, we’ve noticed that the JISC has produced some FOI guidance for researchers.  Primarily for England and Wales, the resource does however mention the Scottish position.  You can find it at

http://foiresearchdata.jiscpress.org/

and we’d love to know what you think.  Have you used this JISC guide?  Is it useful / does it make sense to you?  Let us know in the comments.


Panic? What panic? FOI and researchers.

August 10, 2010

With all the recent brouhaha around the forced disclosure of research data, after the University of East Anglia and Queens University Belfast climate-change researchers were required to make their data available whether they like it or not, it seems that Incremental really is working on a hot topic!

However hair-raising the various reports have been for researchers, though, a couple of sensible points have been made, particularly in the Times Higher Education Supplement article and its subsequent reader comments [at http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=412475&c=2%5D.

Chris Rusbridge, erstwhile director of the Digital Curation Centre, reminds us therein that in the Queens University case, the request for information was made specifically under the Environmental Information Regulations, which he describes as ‘stricter’. Further, Rodney Breen points out that “the Freedom of Information Act has exemptions to protect data which is collected with a reasonable expectation of confidentiality, and data which is commercially sensitive. Under the Scottish Act, there is specific protection for research data. There is no reason why material for which researchers have legitimate need for protection should need to be disclosed.”

I had a look at the Freedom of Information Act (Scotland) 2002 and Part 2 (Exempt Information) does indeed say:

27 Information intended for future publication

(1) Information is exempt information if—

(a) it is held with a view to its being published by—

(i) a Scottish public authority; or

(ii) any other person,

at a date not later than twelve weeks after that on which the request for the information is made;

(b) when that request is made the information is already being held with that view; and

(c) it is reasonable in all the circumstances that the information be withheld from disclosure until such date as is mentioned in paragraph (a).

(2) Information obtained in the course of, or derived from, a programme of research is exempt information if—

(a) the programme is continuing with a view to a report of the research (whether or not including a statement of that information) being published by—

(i) a Scottish public authority; or

(ii) any other person; and

(b) disclosure of the information before the date of publication would, or would be likely to, prejudice substantially—

(i) the programme;

(ii) the interests of any individual participating in the programme;

(iii) the interests of the authority which holds the information; or

(iv) the interests of the authority mentioned in sub-paragraph (i) of paragraph (a) (if it is a different authority from that which holds the information).

I’m (obviously) no legal expert, but I read this as describing certain types of research data as exempt from FoI requests in Scotland, which means, as Chris Rusbridge puts it, ‘This is not all as bleak as it’s painted!’

Clarification, comments, and any differences in the situation for Wales, Northern Ireland and England are, of course, very welcome.


Vocabulary/jargon/terminology: synonyms and specialist language

July 14, 2010

As a non-specialist in data preservation research, I’m finding that my ignorance about a lot of sector-specific jargon (or perhaps ‘terminology’ is a bit more friendly : ) ) can actually work in our favour on this project.  Whilst those who know their data preservation/records management vocabulary employ it – as in any specialist field – for its role in accurate and concise communication, and this is crucial in order to advance specialist research in the field, the Incremental project is all about making research data management make sense to the users, whose primary activity is researching, say, medieval manuscripts or heart disease or Caravaggio’s painting methods or deep-sea mammal life.

The uncomfortable truth is that a lot of people – including those who work in research in universities – don’t even know records management or data curation (or whatever we think it should be called) even exists as a field.  Given this fact, it should come as no surprise that terms in regular use across information curation, data management and related fields mean little or nothing to a lot of people who, nevertheless, need to know about the ideas, methods and processes these baffling terms describe, in order to have a chance of accessing their valuable research data now or in the future.

So we know we have to translate research data management vocabulary from specialist to non-specialist – but how?  We need to find words and phrases that at least have a chance of making sense to researchers who are not specialists in information management / records management / data preservation / data curation.  See?  Even trying to get across this simple point leads me into a linguistic minefield.  Archivists, librarians, IT specialists and other professionals involved in information preservation don’t have an agreed vocabulary for activities and roles in this area, so we on this project really have our work cut out trying to make sense to anyone else!

As part of work this month to scope out the existing data management guidance resources in UK universities, I’ve stumbled across an example: in a few UK universities, ‘research data management’ is used to mean how a researcher goes about gathering information in the first place, i.e the nuts and bolts of the formulation of questionnaires and interview schema, of which software to use to record and share this data, and how researchers can order and manipulate their information as they work on their project.  To me, a lot of this is ‘research methods’, not ‘research data management’.  However, that’s how quite a few UK universities use the term on their guidance pages.  In other institutions, the term is used to mean how one looks after the data after the work is completed, and how one takes care of its longevity, access, integrity and security.  Some other institutions include both these processes in their advice, but that’s rare.  The Digital Curation Centre, a prominent force in, well, digital curation, offers a useful (if slightly intimidating, the first time you see it) lifecycle model (http://www.dcc.ac.uk/sites/default/files/documents/publications/DCCLifecycle.pdf) which supports this third, inclusive view, i.e. that data exists within a lifecycle, beginning with the creation or receipt of the data, and finishing with how to look after it in perpetuity (or until it should be disposed of).  One phrase: three related but distinct views of what it might mean.

There are probably researchers in UK universities with dozens of other ideas about what the phrase ‘research data management’ might mean or involve – and they probably don’t like the sound of any of them.  So how do we find vocabulary that makes sense to non-research-data-management-specialists, and actually makes them feel alright about engaging in good data management practices?  Is it all about sticking with an agreed established term and hoping that if we say it enough, users will eventually get their heads around what it means?  Is it about contextualising data management guidance and advice in researcher-friendly areas of institutional websites, alongside a whacking great glossary of what we mean by each of the terms we use?  Or should we proceed by enthusiastic promotion of the benefits to researchers of good data management, with the awkward vocabulary and frightening names for things tagged on – again with glossary – as unattractive but necessary addenda, like the copious small print at the bottom of loan adverts?