Faculty aim to limit data requests

Advocates say the proposed law would protect unifinished research from misuse.

Erica Mahoney

Some University of Minnesota faculty members hope to help eventually pass state legislation exempting ongoing scholarly work from open records requests.
The University’s Office of the General Counsel is reviewing the measure, which would shield unfinished academic work from data requests. 
The University Senate’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee wants to then turn the idea into state legislation.
“[Researchers are] seeking truth, and in the process of seeking truth we make mistakes,” said Jerry Cohen, a committee member and a horticulture professor. “The shield amendment basically says there’s a time and a place to make things public.”
He said he supports the idea because it keeps people from trying to use scholars’ preliminary data in a malicious way.
“[The idea] protects our unsubstantiated preliminary work from public exposure,” he said.
Under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, all government data, including University records, are presumed to be public information, unless another rule prohibits its release.
Colin Campbell, chair of the Faculty Consultative Committee and associate pharmacology professor, said the idea may be poorly received by supporters of institutional transparency.
“We realize that we can’t be perceived as hiding things or thinking that somehow we don’t have to respond,” he said.
Campbell said there needs to be a balance between complete transparency and having the right to not disclose research until it is analyzed and confirmed.
“Appropriate transparency exists without going to an extreme — it’s a balance,” he said.
Cohen said a shield amendment would still allow for researchers at the University to be held accountable through record requests on completed research.
“I don’t think it really shields us from things that are unethical, because those things can still be discovered,” he said.
If the measure is enacted, Campbell said it would protect against the release of preliminary research results, which sometimes can be incomplete and ambiguous.
“There are some people that go, ‘Yeah, I should be able to come into your lab and look around and see what you’re doing, and it’s a public university, so I should be able to come to your lab meeting because I’m paying for it,’ ” he said.  “It’s hard enough to get things done.”