Personal tools
Login

Academic Freedom

From the joint Senate-Administration Task Force on Academic Freedom

Statement on the Principles of Scholarly Research and Public Records Requests

September 2012

 

Preamble

Robust, frequent, and frank intellectual exchange is essential to research and teaching at the university level. It is therefore a matter of great concern that faculty at public universities throughout the country are increasingly the objects of requests through state (California Public Records Act, or PRA) and federal (Freedom of Information  Act, or FOIA) public records acts for emails, notes, drafts, and other documents. Public access laws are an important component of the democratic process in our society, and scholars themselves frequently benefit from this legal framework. However, faculty scholarly communications must be protected from PRA and FOIA requests to guard the principle of academic freedom, the integrity of the research process and peer review, and the broader teaching and research mission of the university. Moreover, these requests have increasingly been used for political purposes or to intimidate faculty working on controversial issues.  These onerous, politically motivated, or frivolous requests may inhibit the very communications that nourish excellence in research and teaching, threatening the long-established principles of scholarly research.

 

The principles of scholarly research

Faculty at UCLA carry out a triple mission of teaching, service, and research. The three parts of this mission are not identical: our service to the institution is by definition something that concerns the shared governance, operation, and decision-making here at UCLA and UC­ wide. By contrast, our research and teaching are often conducted in collaboration with others  in  our  discipline  at  institutions around  the  world,  and  serve  the  general advancement of knowledge.

Sound, high-quality scholarship is a collective process of trial and error, peer review, and questioning that happens in classrooms, laboratories, offices, conferences, workshops, at work and at home, day and night, in the university and in the field. Through this collective process, scholarship is scrutinized, questioned, improved, and ultimately accepted or rejected by the community. There are a number of principles that underlie this process and are accepted across the disciplines, including the following:

Frank exchange among scholars is essential to advancing knowledge. Scholars frequently test ideas in extreme form, explore possibilities through hypotheticals, or play "devil's advocate," making claims they may not themselves believe in edgy, casual language not intended for public circulation or publication. These communications are frequent and diverse in nature because scholarship is a competitive and fast-paced process, requiring intensive communication among a diverse array of participants.

Peer review is built into the academic enterprise at every level.   Review and contestation is a nearly constant feature of the exploration of scholarly problems, and that review comes from peers at every stage, from the initial identification of a problem to the publication of scholarly work on the problem.  Publications are the final tangible result of scholarly exploration. A published work articulates in detail the methods, materials, and modes of research that led to the findings reported or the  narrative constructed. Publications are written with the expectation that they will contribute new knowledge to a field and spur deeper examination of the problems addressed within them. In essence, peer review never ends.

Faculty often choose research topics that are highly relevant to society and therefore may generate strong reactions. These topics may be controversial and highly politicized (e.g., global warming), deal with illegal or criminal behavior, or focus directly on contentious social questions (e.g., ethnicity, sexual orientation). Faculty must be free to work on these important topics without fear of retribution, threats, or interference.

Faculty members regularly collaborate with colleagues at other institutions. Faculty within the UC system require, and deserve to have, the same freedom of communication with people at other universities and corporations, public and private. Faculty at private universities who perform equivalent research need not fear interference through state public records act requests pertaining to their scholarly contributions; neither should faculty at public universities such as UCLA.

Teaching and research are conducted and governed by the generally accepted professional and ethical commitments specific to each academic discipline. University policies generally incorporate, rather than supersede, those requirements and expectations. Thus, university faculty members already are held to very high professional and ethical standards in the conduct of their scholarly work.

 

The potential harms of public records requests for scholarly records

Frank, honest exchange depends on the maximum protection of the informal and everyday work, personal email, drafts, and records related to research and teaching.  It is essential that regular and frequent communications among faculty within UCLA and with colleagues in other institutions remain within faculty control.  Public records requests can lead to unnecessary and unwarranted increased time commitments necessary to monitor all that is written or said in case of potential public disclosure. A lack of protection from such requests can directly impinge on academic freedom (the "chilling effect") by causing faculty to avoid investigating controversial issues.

 

Principles endorsed to protect scholarly communications

Clarity concerning what is considered a public record by the university is essential to the success of faculty research and teaching endeavors. The university must do its utmost to protect those records not subject to public records oversight and to prevent the chilling effect of public records requests on frank scholarly exchange.  These principles are consistent with the letter and intent of the open records laws:

Protect the system of peer review at all levels. Public records requests are neither a substitute for nor an effective check on peer review by the scholarly community, but instead damage the process by threatening scholars into silence when they should be speaking truthfully and frankly about their concerns. The published record is the gold standard on which scholarship rests and it is readily available to the public. Public records requests of private, draft, or pre-publication materials only serve to confound the peer review process, rather than leading to an improvement or check on this process.

 Protect the right of faculty to choose topics and research areas based on intrinsic criteria. Research that is politically or socially controversial should be subject to the same protections as any other kind of research. If the scholarly process is to function correctly, it must be protected from political, social, religious or other non-academic criteria of evaluation.

 Provide the same protections to UCLA faculty that colleagues in private universities or corporations enjoy. Scholarship is inherently collaborative and extends beyond the bounds of a single lab or office or university. Hence, faculty at UCLA should be afforded the same kinds of protection offered elsewhere, including at private universities.  Maximum protection of UCLA faculty also is necessary to ensure that our colleagues  at other institutions do not experience "second-order" chilling effects, i.e., a fear of collaborating with UC faculty due to concern about potential public disclosure of private materials.

 Reiterate the value of the longstanding traditions of ethical and professional codes of conduct.  Disciplines possess necessary and effective standards that govern the ethics of research. It is this time-tested oversight that ensures accountability.  Public records requests should not be allowed to undermine these traditions.

 

Conclusion

The academic enterprise is intrinsically different from other enterprises conducted for the benefit of the public. Its product, knowledge, is intangible, yet it informs all of society in countless tangible ways, including technology, medical care, ecology, and art. Academia can only make these tremendous contributions to the quality of our lives if it operates according to the standards that have ensured its freedom from bias and its unwavering devotion to truth, whatever that truth may be. The threat to faculty of forced disclosure of scholarly communication through PRA/FOIA requests can damage intellectual freedom and interfere with robust scholarly communication. The proper forum for evaluating and vetting academic research is through the time-honored and rigorous process of peer review. The world's academic community, including its faculties and administrative leaders, must protect itself from these requests if it is to continue to function and contribute to society in the highly valuable manner that is has for centuries.