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« The unfeeling in pursuit of the unthinking | Main | Same old New Scientist »
Friday
Dec062013

More on the secret dissertation

Readers may remember the strange case of the LSE research project that had apparently investigated global warming sceptics in ethically questionable circumstances. Back in July I reported that in response to a request for the related MSc dissertation under the Data Protection Act LSE had contradicted my original source, and said that I was not in fact one of the subjects of the research. They subsequently refused to release details of the project under FOI either.

My appeal to the Information Commissioner has now been concluded, with the ICO upholding the LSE's decision.

There are some interesting legal issues here, and I think perhaps grounds for appeal to the Information Tribunal, which I want to discuss here. The grounds for rejecting my FOI request are that the information requested falls into a special category which is in essence "information that is not disclosable under the Data Protection Act". When the Data Protection Act was set up, an exemption was built in to prevent students from getting hold of marked exam scripts. Then, to prevent them from getting hold of the marks under FOI instead, a parallel exemption was built into the latter Act which essentially says that if you can't get it under DPA, you can't get it under FOI instead.

So what has this got to do with the MSc dissertation I am seeking? Well, the exemption under DPA is contained in Schedule 7.

Sch 7 (9) entitled "Examination scripts" begins as follows:

(1)Personal data consisting of information recorded by candidates during an academic, professional or other examination are exempt from section 7 [i.e. disclosure].

(2)In this paragraph “examination” has the same meaning as in paragraph 8.

Paragraph 8 describes an examination as follows:

...“examination” includes any process for determining the knowledge, intelligence, skill or ability of a candidate by reference to his performance in any test, work or other activity;

As you can see, the definition of "examination" used in the legislation is wider than than the normal usage of the term. Clearly the parliamentary draftsmen intended to cover course work as well. I don't imagine for a minute that they intended to cover dissertations as well, but it does look to me as if the legislation as framed prevents disclosure.

This is strange, because dissertations are routinely made publicly available by universities. Indeed some have suggested that a visit to the LSE library might be in order. I imagine, however, that it would probably be a tricky thing to do because I have no idea of the title of the dissertation or the name of the student or supervisor, and it may not be there at all anyway. The idea that research project outputs, particularly those that are ethically dubious, can be kept secret seems to me to be an invitation to abuse by politically active academics. 

Nevertheless, there may still be ways forward. In particular I would like to get a look at LSE's ethical clearance for the project.

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Reader Comments (26)

This is strange, because dissertations are routinely made publicly available by universities. Indeed some have suggested that a visit to the LSE library might be in order.

No, MSc dissertations are not usually made available. It will not be in the LSE Library.

Dec 6, 2013 at 9:52 AM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

Given the LSE's recent track record any discussion of their ethics is a bit mute.

Dec 6, 2013 at 9:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterSwiss Bob

They have ethical guidelines for research projects:

LSE - Ethics guidance and forms

Dec 6, 2013 at 10:01 AM | Registered Commenterlapogus

"No, MSc dissertations are not usually made available. It will not be in the LSE Library."

That varies between Universities and Countries. In many cases MSc dissertations are public.

And that is a very interesting loophole. In practice it means that any research in which an undergraduate took part can legally be kept secret.

Dec 6, 2013 at 10:06 AM | Unregistered Commentertty

Is it really worth the effort to try and get more? I can understand the frustration at having your name taken in vain but the thing was not published, no one seems to have made and use of it or cited it and the wording of the Act makes it unlikely that you will get it anyway. Save your energy for important distortions of the truth.

Dec 6, 2013 at 10:06 AM | Unregistered CommenterRon

Well done Andrew- this is the sort of thing that everyone on this blog, who are disgusted by the behaviour of the dramagreens and those who corruptly benefit from green energy scams, needs to do.

I suspect that most of us would be hard-pressed to protest in the streets-we are not "rent-a-mob" and have jobs-unlike the morons at Balcombe.
However there is much we can do apart from vent our spleen/wring our hands here.

As many BH readers know I took on UEA, in court, and won. I then had to face another uphill battle to get the Judgement enforced.

I have just made a (another) complaint to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
So far I am 1 for 2 in terms of success, but can't say anything just yet (contempt of Parliament if I do)

I'm hoping this latest complaint will cause real shockwaves. On the other hand, what I allege is so damning, I suspect it will be ignored at all costs!

Nevertherless my advice is keep watching everything the corrupt say and do and if it contravenes the most piffling rule, make an official complaint.

Maybe Andrew can put up a "hit-list" of selected corrupt MPs and Lords- we could then crowdsource them?
If enough of us do this - and report to (the few) sympathetic journalists to get maximum adverse publicity to the corrupt, we will make a difference.

Dec 6, 2013 at 10:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

Does this make any published MSc or even PhD dissertation illegal unless the right disclosure documents have been signed by all Parties involved?

Dec 6, 2013 at 10:33 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos

I missed this back in July. Having now listened to Rapley, I am appalled. To paraphrase Rapley for those who have not listened to the audio clip:

This research could never have passed the LSE ethical committee, so it could never be published. The nature of the research was to ask sceptics (e.g. Dellingpole, David Bellamy, Lord Lawson, Andrew Montford, Sonja Boehmer Christiansen) if they were in the pay of big oil, and if not are they evil people who know they are not telling the truth, and are doing it for ideological reasons, or lastly, are they just suffering from some psychological disorder?

As the LSE is at least partly publicly funded, I think the subjects of this study have a right to know what has been written about them, and suggest the GPWF should take legal advice on behalf of Lord Lawson and the others to request a copy of the study.

Dec 6, 2013 at 10:40 AM | Registered Commenterlapogus

@Don Keiller

As many BH readers know I took on UEA, in court, and won. I then had to face another uphill battle to get the Judgement enforced.

And there's truly "the rub" eh? You not unreasonably thought you'd had a "win"! - I have a similar situation with Judicial Review - The Environment Agency lost - were instructed to do a menu of things and chose only to do those things which suited them and to go ignore instruction from the court detailed in a court order (and they indulged in a carnival of other stuff designed to provoke and wholly against the spirit of the court order by any sane reading)

My take on this is that where institutional misbehavior/wrongdoing is challenged - it's dealt with on a "corporate" level by a (lavishly tax funded) damage control team who seek to weasel out on any terms. Sometimes their enthusiasm to get away with it - emboldened by being behind the battlements of a state funded body gets the better of them and they overstep the mark for Conspiracy to Defraud (note: this is *not* "fraud"). The issue is with individuals behind the walls... I personally believe that there are too many public officials who should have to answer for their clear wrongdoing who are escaping the consequences of that wrongdoing.

This isn't a panacea but certainly I believe that some DECC officials in particular but also (inevitably) some of my mates at The Ministry of Waste could reasonably be brought quite simply and cheaply to court on an individual basis to answer a charge of Conspiracy to Defraud. If the case is properly documented and there is a substantive case to answer (i.e. it's accepted) - a *private* prosecution's costs are fully reimbursed from central funds (n.b. not Legal Aid) - that is *regardless* of the final outcome.

If anybody's up for a chat about this I could take it over for a discussion thead?

It's one of Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals" - play the man not the ball - not quite cricket but exceedingly effective nonetheless. These goons behind the institutional battlements believe themselves invulnerable.... time to grab them by the belt ?

Dec 6, 2013 at 11:03 AM | Registered Commentertomo

My experience with FOI/EIR requests to EA and NE is that they try and fob you off and ICO is similar

Having looked at your july post and the paragraph of the legislation you link to, it seems to me that there is no way that this paragraph supports the decision they have made. Who is the person which 'personal' refers to. It it my belief it refers to the person being educated, or writing a thesis.

It is possible to appeal an ICO decision, Don has written here about how he did this. I am in the process of an appeal. In my case it was because EA didnt answer some of my FOI requests at all and ICO agreed with them. Curious once the appeal was started EA answered all the outstanding questions and applied to be made a party to proceedings.

Te he

Other thoughts, theses often have to be lodged in university or departmental library. You could just wander in and have a look.

Also you (or a mate) could find out who wrote the thesis, contact them and ask for a copy. Sometimes simple things work.

Dec 6, 2013 at 11:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Shiers

'Given the LSE's recent track record any discussion of their ethics is a bit mute.'
I think you mean moot, though I'm sure the LSE would like to mute the entire issue.

Dec 6, 2013 at 11:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterEddy

The LSE's Dissertation Checklist (http://www.lse.ac.uk/media@lse/study/CurrentStudents/docs/MC499-Guide-2012-13.pdf) asks the student to say whether or not the subjects of the study are to be aware of it - "Will it be necessary for participants to take part in the study wuthout their knowledge and consent at the time?".

Also, the LSE library contains many published dissertations, but the checklist refers to the existence of unpublished ones, so it seems as if their publishing criteria are open to interpretation. It seems odd, though, to award a higher academic qualification on the basis of unpublished material. I know that my own seminal tome on the safe and efficient packaging of sausages is open to public scrutiny and there was never any question of it not being published.

Do we know if a Master's degree was indeed awarded based on this dissertation? If a visit to the library were to be made, could a search just on 2013 lodgements be made to look for a likely suspect?

Dec 6, 2013 at 11:22 AM | Unregistered Commenterdak

A dissertation, in Scotland anyway, is normally about 15000 words and a requirement for the MA or MSc. A thesis is what you produce for a PhD, about 100,000 words and it is only for these that you are asked to deposit two copies in the University library.

I think in the US they refer to a thesis as a dissertation.

Dec 6, 2013 at 11:23 AM | Unregistered CommenterMessenger

I thought that PhD theses were formal publications. However, i have never had the understanding that MSc/ MRes theses were formal publications. So i would see that even though the same word (thesis) is used to describe the product of an MSc and a PhD, they are very different beasts, and different rules apply.

looking at what is expected from an MSc thesis, i think it realistic to describe it as coursework
per

Dec 6, 2013 at 11:28 AM | Unregistered Commenterper

Jeremy Shiers

had a look at your place - interesting ...

I've been trying to locate the technical document for the extensive (and very expensive) program of sea defences planned for the Thames Estuary which is referenced in much of the EA's own "surge" of self aggrandizing PR London "climate change flood surge" bilge - with notable lack of success.

There's some Met Office research which assigns sea level rise a bit part (more of a "we've got to mention it") in east coast tidal / barometrically generated tidal surges - but bugger all else. The EA have a history of shameless invention (cue: "The Wrong Type of Rain"™ - © Chris Smiff) and others. Even when confronted with evidence that they're really wrong a retraction in any form is unicorn dung.

These people are really *not* unaware that observation does *not* support their AGW suffused projections - _at all_ Maybe (!) I'm just a grump - but that to me looks like fraud .... - see above :-p

Dec 6, 2013 at 12:12 PM | Registered Commentertomo

"If anybody's up for a chat about this I could take it over for a discussion thead?

It's one of Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals" - play the man not the ball - not quite cricket but exceedingly effective nonetheless. These goons behind the institutional battlements believe themselves invulnerable.... time to grab them by the belt ?"

Tomo I'm up for this :-) Anyone else?

Dec 6, 2013 at 12:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

@tomo

thanks for your comment

As far as I can tell there is no logical reason for EA pursuing their policy of managed realignment (knocking down sea walls in order to try and create salt marsh). Especially, as you point out, in places like London they are building sea defenses. On top of that in places like Felixstowe and London Gateway salt marsh is being destroyed to create or extend ports.

Perhaps the only logic for EA is to keep themselves busy and in business. This is also true of DEFRA, NE and Met Office.

I'm shocked shocked at the suggestion a government agency would either pursue a policy without any evidence, or just make the evidence up

You might like to look at insidetheenvironmentagency.co.uk> especially the post which compares EA number of staff and budget with equivalents in France, Germany, Sweden, Austria and Denmark and concludes EA has 3 times the staff and twice the budget of all the other countries combined!

Dec 6, 2013 at 1:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Shiers

12:34 PM Don Keiller

OK done ...

I've been flirting with this for long enough - time time to move it a bit...

@Jeremy Shiers
heh! - I know Henry the blogger at insidetheenvironmentagency - have a mild suspicion (like to think) that my own efforts at Avoncliff tormenting the EA were a small part in his decision to go public.

Since I torment myself with watching EA Twitter feeds I spotted the PR balloon for the London flood scheme and spent hours reading the supporting documentation and searching for that elusive justification - documents quote some old and AFAIK very questionable (some say discredited) generalist papers - no local observations, actual models(!) or detail arithmetic has been exposed to justify the scope of works (That was around 6 weeks back). It's of interest to me as the hats I've been known to wear are hydrographics, geophysics and marine geotechnical investigation.

Dec 6, 2013 at 1:08 PM | Registered Commentertomo

I'm torn between Ron's view above (If it is not published then why bother) and what I understand about the Data Protection Act.

I thought you were entitled to know what information an organisation or person had about you and that all you had to do was apply for it and pay a fee? Are they now claiming that if someone has information about you but it has been disguised as a dissertation then DPA does not apply the same way?

Dec 6, 2013 at 2:33 PM | Unregistered Commentergraphicconception

So if a student doctor writes on your medical records you are no longer allowed access to them...?

Dec 6, 2013 at 3:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterZT

Is it not illegal to practice psychiatry without a license?

Dec 6, 2013 at 4:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterBruce

@tomo

If you would like to get in touch (jeremy at jeremyshiers.com) or put me in touch with Henry I'd be grateful.
As I said there is a hearing currently scheduled for 9 Jan re ICO's decision to accept EA's assertion that it would be so onerous to answer one of my questions that they should be excused.

EA claimed that all sites in Essex and South Suffolk SMP which have been chosen for realignment were chosen as these sites were vulnerable to erosion.

I said ok can I see the evidence.

EA's first stance was to say they were'nt going to answer and I they would be happy to cooperate with ICO in any complaint I might raise.

Then when ICO got involved they said there were 30 sites, and the information was held in different databases at different geographical locations and there estimate was it would take 420 hours

420 hours! at 8 hours a day 5 days a week that's nearly 3 months. 3 months to find evidence that they've already used to produced the SMP!

Perhaps you would be interested in learning more, pour le sport

Whilst this may be of no interest to everyone else it is an indication of FOI process, it's a bit like ping pong who just have to keep hitting the ball back over the net

Dec 6, 2013 at 5:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Shiers

Lets remember that the original problem was someone based their MSC dissertation on what they claimed where interviews with AGW sceptics but that those sceptics cannot remember these 'interviews' ever happing. In other words someone used a lie but the LSE was to dum or to lazy to check their claims to find out to find out they were lying .
Following this to save face and because its 'politically' useful the LSE decided to use the path very well worn in climate science lined with smoke and mirrors.

Bottom line , someone has a master they have no right to , and they may well have gone on to use this to gain an academic or other position . Now I acknowledge that within climate 'science' such behaviour is not just accepted but rewarded , but that is still no reason why it should be OK.

Dec 6, 2013 at 10:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterKNR

Andrew, have you applied using a Subject Access Request (SAR)? Is this the route you went under the DPA? To negotiate the exemption, I don't see why you can't state explicitly that you are happy for the student's grade to be redacted.

Dec 6, 2013 at 11:17 PM | Registered CommenterSimon Hopkinson

Simon

Yes. But they say I'm not actually a subject.

Dec 7, 2013 at 8:18 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Hi Bish, if you do visit the LSE library you might also want to look for a copy of the 2009 thesis by LSE PhD graduate Edward Tredger “On the evaluation of uncertainty in climate models”, which is the source of Figure 11 in the paper "Observing and Modeling Earth’s Energy Flows" (available free access at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10712-012-9184-0 ). This is an interesting diagram of the actual temperatures generated by climate models rather than anomalies (very revealing). I asked the library for a digital copy but they said they didn't have. Somehow I doubt that Profs. Stevens and Schwartz visited London from Germany and the US respectively. I haven't had time to contact Mr. Tredger's professor, but may do that.

Dec 8, 2013 at 11:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterGeoff

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