Why FOI requests are a powerful but under-used research tool

NCRM news
Dr Kathrin Lauber, University of Edinburgh
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Freedom of Information (FOI) laws are a crucial tool for the transparency and accountability of public institutions. Many countries have access to information laws, though scope and functionality vary significantly. FOI requests are an essential and well-known part of the journalistic toolbox but they can also be a powerful tool for academic research across a wide range of disciplines.

As a group of health researchers who are using this tool to investigate policy processes and commercial influence, we sought to create a space to discuss FOI requests as a data collection method with others from different disciplines and backgrounds. With support from NCRM’s Innovation Fora scheme, we have organised a short series of events on this topic, starting with three webinars and culminating in an in-person workshop in March 2023. Below we summarise some of the discussions from the first webinar, on Wednesday, 16 November 2022, which focused on FOI requests as a research tool and collaboration beyond academia.

Our invited speaker, Gary Ruskin, is Executive Director and co-founder of the non-profit research group US Right to Know (USRTK). Gary discussed his decades-long experience working towards transparency and accountability in public health. He emphasised the power of FOI laws to enable insights into some of the drivers that undermine population health. Notably, he shared insights from academic collaborations that were based on documents obtained by USRTK and resulted in fourteen peer-reviewed publications exploring corporate influence on health science and policy. From a civil society perspective, this approach enables rigorous, in-depth analysis of large document batches, overcoming the capacity constraints many non-profit organisations face. In light of a decline of capacity in investigative journalism, academics can fill an important gap in writing up findings from available documents. FOI work is the ‘bread and butter’ of USRTK and they regularly take FOI requests further than many of us, including moving to litigation when institutions refuse to release documents.

Wider benefits of using FOI requests in research

Following Gary’s intervention, two of his academic collaborators offered brief reflections on their experience of being ‘on the other side’ of USRTK’s FOI-based investigations: Dr Sarah Steele,  University of Cambridge,  Deputy Director of the Intellectual Forum at Jesus College and a Senior Research Associate, and Dr Angela Carriedo, Research Fellow at the University of Bath’s Tobacco Control Research Group. Reflections highlighted the value of working with people and organisations who can "play the long game" and have unparalleled, holistic knowledge of existing datasets. Benefits for dissemination of outputs were also highlighted. Peer-reviewed publication pathways add legitimacy, which is valuable, in particular where highly critical research is concerned, whilst civil society collaboration opens up relationships to public-facing media outlets.

In the discussion, the unpredictability of FOI requests for data collection was raised, a potential issue in the academic context, where review boards may require more certainty. In their response, the speakers highlighted that, firstly, the statutory response limits present in some countries (such as the UK) can facilitate fast initial responses and, secondly, even non- or partial responses are findings. Moreover, unpredictability is not necessarily a negative aspect of this method, though it does require a degree of openness and flexibility. FOI data is often surprising and on occasion, a requester may receive immensely helpful documents they did not explicitly ask for, often in the form of email attachments. Another function of FOI requests is the impact it can have on the institutions receiving them; asking for information is not a one-way process but can develop into a constructive dialogue and even prompt internal processes by drawing attention to issues.

An exciting data collection method

In summary, it is evident that FOI requests are a powerful but under-used tool that have an important place in academic research. Academia, like any other professional environment, brings with it a specific set of constraints, yet many of these can be overcome with collaboration (within and outside universities), good research design, and some openness to the unexpected. With the upcoming webinars and workshop, we hope to provide a space for those working with FOI requests or thinking about doing so to share their ideas, failures, and successes, to further good practice around this exciting data collection method.

Interested but not sure where to start? Have a dig around some existing FOI data! Many of USRTK’s datasets are archived on the UCSF Industry Documents Library, a public repository. Though not presented in the most accessible format for the general public, the Library is the largest of its kind and provides an valuable, free resource. Similarly, platforms such as WhatDoTheyKnow and AskTheEU, in addition to providing an easier interface for document requests, store data from previous requests in a searchable format.