SYMP 6-1
Open access to your emails: Defending against the latest weapon used to attack scientists

Tuesday, August 11, 2015: 8:00 AM
309, Baltimore Convention Center
Michael Halpern, Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists, Washington, DC
Gretchen Goldman, Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists, Washington, DC

Just as technology has made scientific collaboration across institutions more feasible, the use of open records laws to access the email correspondence, draft papers, and other private records of scientists and other researchers is becoming more common. While these laws are important for public accountability, excessive disclosure can chill scientific speech and make collaboration among researchers considerably more difficult. Further, laws vary significantly by state and nation, leading to competitive advantages for researchers employed in different locations and at private institutions and unanticipated consequences for both public and private institution researchers. In April 2014, the Virginia Supreme Court found the University of Virginia correctly exempted deliberative research materials from disclosure in a case that pitted climate change researchers against those who do not accept mainstream climate science. Similar requests have been made for the private correspondence of researchers in a variety of fields including ecology, and lawsuits are pending. Scientists are lawyering up, and universities and government agencies are grappling with how to apply open records laws to scientific research.


Attempts to use open records laws to undermine a few individual scientists, and thereby cast doubt on an entire body of research, are similar to other attacks on scientists dating back decades. Universities that proactively explain how they will interpret these laws will be more likely to avoid costly and time-consuming lawsuits. Through a series of case studies, the speaker will provide historical context for this debate and discuss the consequences that open records laws can have for academic freedom. The speaker will explore the role of research institutions and scientific societies in defending universities and individual scientists and provide strategies for both individual scientists and universities to be fully prepared to use electronic communications responsibly and build resiliency to attacks. The speaker will also explore solutions that both preserve academic freedom and recognize the public’s right to know how taxpayer funds are used.