Preparing Researchers for an Era of Freer Information

Article by Peter W.B. Phillips: “If you Google my name along with “Monsanto,” you will find a series of allegations from 2013 that my scholarly work at the University of Saskatchewan, focused on technological change in the global food system, had been unduly influenced by corporations. The allegations made use of seven freedom of information (FOI) requests. Although leadership at my university determined that my publications were consistent with university policy, the ensuing media attention, I feel, has led some colleagues, students, and partners to distance themselves to avoid being implicated by association.

In the years since, I’ve realized that my experience is not unique. I have communicated with other academics who have experienced similar FOI requests related to genetically modified organisms in the United States, Canada, England, Netherlands, and Brazil. And my field is not the only one affected: a 2015 Union of Concerned Scientists report documented requests in multiple states and disciplines—from history to climate science to epidemiology—as well as across ideologies. In the University of California system alone, researchers have received open records requests related to research on the health effects of toxic chemicals, the safety of abortions performed by clinicians rather than doctors, and the green energy production infrastructure. These requests are made possible by laws that permit anyone, for any reason, to gain access to public agencies’ records.

These open records campaigns, which are conducted by individuals and groups across the political spectrum, arise in part from the confluence of two unrelated phenomena: the changing nature of academic research toward more translational, interdisciplinary, and/or team-based investigations and the push for more transparency in taxpayer-funded institutions. Neither phenomenon is inherently negative; in fact, there are strong advantages for science and society in both trends. But problems arise when scholars are caught between them—affecting the individuals involved and potentially influencing the ongoing conduct of research…(More)”