Columbia Journalism Review: Anti-GMO group’s records request threatens independent research

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U.S. Right to Know, based in Oakland, Calif., has asked at least four universities to turn over all correspondence since 2012 between 14 researchers and a number of private companies, including Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, and public relations firm Ogilvy & Mather.

Call it the shadow side of sunlight laws. While open records requests are designed to protect press freedom, they also make it possible for people who oppose certain scientific viewpoints to exploit them. Ideologically driven record requests to public universities, coming from both the right and left, are often purposefully designed to disrupt research. This is nothing more than bullying, according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which advocates for a measured approach to open records, with a more discrete definition of which requests serve the public good and which do not.

You can thank the tobacco industry for pioneering the tactic of invasive record requests back in the 1990s, according to the new report. It has gathered steam in the internet era, where email messages leave a much larger and more candid paper trail. Climate scientists and animal researchers are among those who are prone to harassing open record requests, according to report author Michael Halpern, UCS’s program manager for the Center for Science and Democracy. Personal and proprietary information is often requested that goes beyond the responsibility of public employees, he argues, and overly broad requests lead to time-consuming lawsuits that drain public resources. His report advocates for a communal approach to managing open records.

Related article:  Anti-GMO “Right to Know” movement cashing in on scaring and confusing consumers

In the true shared spirit of both journalism and science, “peer review” is an effective tonic for a dispiriting trend that makes both professions more difficult. Kevin Folta, one of the University of Florida scientists hit by the anti-GMO request, has been intensively blogging about it. His frustration is clear, but that makes it more powerful when he declares his opposition to “retaliatory” record requests on scientists who, unlike him, are skeptical of GMOs. “We should not tolerate it against our friends, and we should not tolerate it against those we disagree with,” he writes. “Let’s continue to stand up for science and reason, let data do the talking, and continue to teach, especially to those we disagree with.”

Read full, original article: Why scientists often hate records requests

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