UCL News


UCL in the News: Uncovering buried treasure

23 October 2008

Scholars may be missing out on a "treasure trove" of research material because they are failing to exploit freedom of information law.

This is the view of a small group of academics who have successfully used the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act to access previously secret research material, and who have come together to share their experiences. …

"A couple of us thought - why aren't researchers making more use of this? This is something we should be looking into," said workshop organiser Dr Elizabeth Shepherd [UCL School of Library, Archive & Information Studies], who researches the FoI Act. She describes the Act as an "extra way" of accessing information and one certainly worth bearing in mind. …

Dr Shepherd said that while pressure groups and journalists may have been quick to grasp the possibilities the Act offers, academics have been slower on the uptake.

"It is not yet part of the mindset, the working assumptions, the traditions of academic researchers," she said. …

So how should those interested in using the FoI Act to obtain research material proceed?

Consult the website of the relevant public authority and go for it, Dr Shepherd advised. To improve the likelihood of success, researchers should be extremely specific about what they want, which she admits can be difficult when research questions are by nature fairly broad and researchers will probably want access to reams of material.

She suggests that researchers may be better off engaging informally with the authority to see if it will provide a more general privileged access to the information - the approach typically used by researchers in the past and the only one that will yield large numbers of files.

"There are times when it is better to use FoI and times when it is better to engage in a dialogue with people who hold the records," said Dr Shepherd. …

Zoë Corbyn, 'Times Higher Education'