Woodside on Access to Underlying Research Data

Access to underlying data and materials, source codes, and other research materials is a two-edged sword. Many scientists who hold forth on the issue, including some prominent plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, have been extremely critical of the pharmaceutical and other industries for not sharing underlying data of their research. On the other hand, some of the same people have resisted sharing data and information when the litigants have sought access to these materials to understand or to challenge the published conclusions and analyses.[1]

Dr. Frank Woodside, of Dinsmore & Shohl, kindly sent me a copy of his recent law review article, written with a colleague, which advocates for full disclosure of underlying research data when research becomes material to the outcome of litigation.[2] Frank C. Woodside & Michael J. Gray, “Researchers’ Privilege: Full Disclosure,” 32 West. Mich. Univ. Cooley L. Rev. 1 (2015). The authors make the case that the so-called researcher’s privilege has little or no support in federal or state law. My previous posts have largely supported this view, at least for research that has been published, and especially for research that is being relied upon by testifying expert witnesses in pending litigation. As Lord Chancellor Hardwicke put the matter, “the public has a right to every man’s evidence,”[3] and scientists should not be immune to the requirement of giving and sharing their evidence.

Woodside and Gray have updated the scholarship in this area, and their article should be consulted in any ongoing discovery, subpoena, or Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) battle. Their discussion of the evolving case law under FOIA is especially timely. Despite the strong presumption in favor of disclosure under FOIA,[4] and President Obama’s pronouncements[5] about a new era in FOIA openness and transparency, the government’s compliance is at an all-time low. See Ted Bridis, “Obama administration sets new record for withholding FOIA requests,” PBS News Hour (Mar. 18, 2015). Court decisions have made clear that researchers cannot refuse to produce underlying data simply “because disclosure would diminish the researchers’ ability to publish their results in prestigious journals.”[6] And yet the National Institute of Environmental Health and Safety continues in its aggressive resistance to disclosure of underlying data, often by invoking FOIA exemption number four. In my cases, I have seen the NIEHS resort to this exemption that protects documents that reveal “[t]rade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential,”[7] even when the research in question was conducted by academic researchers funded by the NIEHS.

[1] See, e.g., Enoch v. Forest Research Institute, Inc., N.J. Law Div. Hudson Cty., Civ. Div. L-3896-14, Order Granting Defendants’ Motion to Compel Production of Documents Necessary to Verify the Validity and Accuracy of a Study by Plaintiffs’ Expert, Anick Berard, Ph.D. (Oct. 9, 2015) (Jablonski, J.) (ordering plaintiffs to “produce the documents sought by the Forest defendants to verify the validity and accuracy of the study known as “Berard et al., Sertraline Use During Pregnancy and the Risk of Major Malformations, Am. J. Obstet. Gynecol. (2015), doi 10.1016/j.ajog.2015.01.034, namely the study’s SAS source codes and the specific generalized estimating equation models that were used to generate Table 2 of the study”).

[2] And I should thank Dr. Woodside and Mr. Gray for their generous citations to your humble blogger’s posts on this subject.

[3] Debate in the House of Lords on the Bill to Indemnify Evidence, 12 Hansard’s Parliamentary History of England, 675, 693, May 25, 1742, quoted in 8 Wigmore on Evidence at 64, § 2192 (3d ed. 1940).

[4] See S. REP. No. 89-813, at 3 (1965) (the purpose of FOIA is to “establish a general philosophy of full agency disclosure . . . and to provide a court procedure by which citizens and the press may obtain information wrongfully withheld”).

[5] See Executive Order, Memorandum, 74 Fed. Reg. 4685 (Jan. 21, 2009).

[6] See Burka v. U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Serv., 87 F.3d 508, 515 (D.C. Cir. 1996).

[7] See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(4).

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