Science Policy & Funding News

Open Records Laws Increasingly Used to Harass Scientists

A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists says that scientists and universities need to be prepared to respond to broad open records requests.


Special interests are increasingly using broad open records requests to intimidate scientists, and researchers and universities need to be prepared to respond to these demands, according to a new report that comes as the debate over transparency heats up in Congress.

The report, “Freedom to Bully: How Laws Intended to Free Information Are Used to Harass Researchers,” issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), finds that the practice of using open records requests to intimidate scientists emerged with the growing use of electronic communication over the past 2 decades.

The practice roughly follows a pattern: Individuals, companies, organizations, activists, and other special interests across the political spectrum utilize states’ freedom of information laws to make broad requests for materials on topics that they disagree with to “attack and harass scientists and other researchers and shut down conversation at public universities,” according to the report.

In many cases, these groups request all materials on a topic in a university’s or researcher’s possession, including emails, draft papers, and handwritten notes. Researchers and universities are often unprepared to respond to these requests, the report notes.

“This strategy can curb the ability of researchers to pursue their work, chill their speech and discourage them from tackling contentious topics,” the report states. The report was released 13 February at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held in San Jose, Calif.

Flare-Ups over Funding Sources

The report provided prescient context for groups, including the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, and UCS, which expressed concern over a series of letters dated 24 February written by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) asking scientists known to be climate change deniers for information on their funding sources as well as drafts and communications about their testimonies before Congress. Grijalva, the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, wrote the letters after news reports disclosed the funding sources of Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a frequent critic of research linking human actions to climate change.

The groups said that asking for unpublished communications impinges on scientists’ academic freedom. Grijalva has since said his request seeking the records of correspondence likely went too far, but the issue has put a spotlight on the debate about transparency and disclosure.

“There is a growing need for academic societies, public interest organizations, journalists, the National Academies, industry and other stakeholders to come up with common disclosure standards that balance the public’s interest in transparency with the public’s interest in reasonable privacy and the ability of researchers to do their best work,” Michael Halpern, program manager at the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, wrote in a blog post.

Quelling Science Through Freedom of Information Laws

Freedom of information laws allow citizens to request public records from government agencies and other taxpayer-funded institutions. These laws are intended to increase government transparency and accountability while also limiting access to sensitive information such as trade secrets and intelligence related to national security. State open records laws—which vary from state to state—can also be used to solicit information from government-funded scientists working at publicly funded universities.

The new report finds that individuals, companies, and other groups have been using these state laws to make broad freedom of information requests to taxpayer-funded institutions and researchers asking for all information on a given topic or from a given person. These requests can include unpublished data, handwritten notes, telephone records, emails, and other information going back years and years. Complying with these requests not only is costly and time-consuming but also can discourage communication among scientists and harm researchers’ reputations, the report says.

The report says that special interests use these broad requests to attack scientists or fields of study with which they disagree, such as climate change. In a now famous example, former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli used the state’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act to subpoena all of climate scientist Michael Mann’s correspondence from his time at the University of Virginia. The state supreme court eventually ruled that the university did not have to disclose records that could harm research efforts, damage faculty recruitment and retention, undermine faculty expectations of privacy and confidentiality, and impair free thought and expression.

“To be sure, open records requests are there to hold governments accountable. In general, the more transparent government is, the more officials are likely to serve the public interest and resist efforts to suppress, censor or otherwise unduly influence scientific research,” Halpern wrote in a blog post. “But there’s an unexpected dark side to these laws that needs to be dealt with.”

“In short, activists and special interests from across the political spectrum are initiating broad and invasive open records requests for emails, handwritten notes, raw data, and anything else they can get their hands on,” he continued. “The practice can intimidate researchers and shut down speech.”

What Can Scientists Do?

Halpern said that scientists and institutions need to be prepared to deal with these open records requests. Researchers should be aware of how their university handles open records requests. Institutions should clarify their policies in this area, including how they will respond to requests and which materials they consider public and which they consider private, the report suggests.

Universities and researchers should also be aware of the context of a request and fulfill requests with full awareness of what disclosure will mean, Halpern said. In addition, researchers and professional societies need to recognize that what may be in the best interest of a university is not always in the best interest of an individual researcher, the report notes.

Mann, who has come under other similar attacks in addition to the University of Virginia case, said that scientists cannot allow the abuse of open records requests to change the way they do their work, which includes communicating with colleagues over email.

“It is crucial that we prevail in this battle to protect academic freedom and the right of scientists to have frank and internal discussions with each other,” he said during a panel on the issue at the AAAS meeting. “If we fail in that battle, all of society loses out.”

—Nanci Bompey, Writer; email: [email protected]

Citation: Bompey, N. (2015), Open records laws increasingly used to harass scientists, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO026413. Published on 18 March 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
  • Ray Watts

    I don’t get the assertion that this represents an attack on deniers of human induced climate change. The article states clearly that the issue arose when Willie Soon was hit with FOI requests, and that the requests for Soon’s records were excessive. It seems to me that the point is that all scientists, no matter what their positions may be, are at risk of disruption of their normal activities.

    • Thomas H Pritchett

      The issue became widely public with Rep. Grijalva’s FOI request at Dr. Soon, but had been an issue in the scientific community well before then with the classic example of the actions taken against Dr. Mann. Similar attacks had been made against the Hadley Center in Great Britain well before the Soon incident.