Science: Where Information isn’t Free

Paywall met by those trying to access the research article via the publisher's website.

Last week a user of mySociety’s Freedom of Information website made a request for the release of the results of research into pollutants and urban greenspace in London which had been carried out by The Forestry Commission. Despite this work having been led by the government department responsible for the UK’s woodlands, carried out in collaboration with UK universities, and largely funded by public money distributed via the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council the results of the research were not freely accessible. The user was referred to an academic paper entitled An integrated tool to assess the role of new planting in PM10 capture and the human health benefits: A case study in London which has been published in the October 2009 edition of Elsevier Ltd’s Environmental Pollution journal. The publishing company are currently offering a A PDF version of the publication for $31.50via their website.

Exemptions Applicable to Research
In terms of the freedom of information act there are a number of provisions which can be used to exempt the output of publicly funded scientific research:

  • Section 22 of the act excludes “Information intended for future publication”, a large fraction of research cumulates in the publication of an academic paper so comes into this category.
  • Section 21 excludes “Information accessible to applicant by other means.” This means that once research work has been published a requestor can merely be directed to the publication. Section 21(2)a of the act makes clear “information may be [considered] reasonably accessible to the applicant even though it is accessible only on payment.”

With the above exemptions in mind it might well be possible to phrase requests in such a way that they don’t apply. For example I have had some limited success in relation to a request for a research protocol.

First Come First Served?
Our user was offered a hard copy of the publication; the reason this request was drawn to our attention was that the team to was contacted to help the two parties to get in touch directly. I suspect the reason that an electronic copy of the document was not supplied via WhatDoTheyKnow may have been related to a concern over breach of copyright on the research results which has probably been transferred or licensed to the publisher. While one individual may have obtained a copy of the information, it is still not accessible to everyone. Tony Hutchings, the Forestry Commission’s Head of Land Regeneration and Urban Greenspace, who led the research told me: “We have prints of the paper which we could supply you with”. How many printed copies he has to distribute and what happens when he runs out is not clear.

Open Access Publishing
Ideally the results of publicly funded scientific research ought be published in an unrestricted format in open access journals. The UK government, is moving towards such a stance but at a painfully slow pace. I asked the author of the research why he had taken the decision not to publish in a more accessible journal. He responded by saying:

The Research Councils (as do many funders from both private industry and public bodies) assess the quality of the research undertaken by the impact factors of the papers produced. … To my knowledge there are unfortunately few open access journals with high impact factors.

The EPSRC who funded his research have a Policy on Access to Research Outputs which states: “knowledge derived from publicly-funded research must be made available and accessible for public use”. When I asked them for a comment on this particular case Dr Sue Smart their Head of Performance and Evaluation responded saying: “Tony Hutchings is mistaken in his assertion that we use journal impact factors in assessing the quality of research”, but she also ruled his offer of a paper copy of the research article was: “in keeping with the principles of the RCUK (Research Councils UK) position statement [on access to research outputs].”

Like the other volunteers who help out with I use the site for my own activism and campaign independently for more openness and transparency in a range of areas. I have written an extended article on my own website on the subject of open access publishing where I have included more details of the responses from the research council and researcher quoted above.


  1. In this case it appears the agreement with the publisher allows the author to “self-archive the reviewed manuscript”, ie. put a copy on their website, perhaps in a freedom of information disclosure log. I have written to the author suggesting he does this; or let me know what is preventing him from doing so.

    Even if this occurs the information is still not free, how it can be used and where it can be published is still tightly controlled by the publisher despite it being information the UK taxpayer paid to create.