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.