July 27, 2016, by Centre for Applied Social Research

Freedom of Information legislation as a means of data production in health and social care research

Author: Philip Archard

A recent review of the use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2000 in healthcare research was able to identify only 16 articles describing its use and concludes the FOIA is currently under resourced by health and social care researchers, particularly in regard to the examination of issues of service access across different regions of the UK.

Using the act for research purposes is, though, not without its complexities and there are a number of issues to be considered in regard to its ethical deployment to the accessing of information.

As someone presently engaged in a study resourcing the FOIA, I thought I’d use this blog post to flag some salient pieces of literature I’ve found useful in using ut. They span contributions which help in terms of gaining a baseline understanding of the Act to those assisting more in terms of methodological thinking, for theorising the process of making requests and receiving responses, and the data generated.

Firstly, the University College London Constitution Unit’s Making Freedom of Information Requests: A Guide for Academic Researchers provides a great starting point for researchers thinking about using the Act for the first time, for writing and refining requests; common problems faced by researchers using FOI based methods; and inspiration from examples of projects that have made good use of the legislation.

Walby and Larsen’s (2011) article ‘Access to Information and Freedom of Information Requests: Neglected Means of Data Production in the Social Sciences’ published in the journal Qualitative Enquiry is the best I have come across to date in theorising a FOI informed research process.  Although written with a Canadian context and comparable legislation in mind, Walby and Larsen explore in depth, and using examples from their own projects, the interface between the use of FOI type legislation by researchers.  Alongside other issues qualitative researchers must consider including reflexivity and the Hawthorne effect, considering how discourse analytic approaches can add depth to how FOI derived data is understood.

Finally, two articles published in International Journal of Social Research: ‘The UK Freedom of Information Act and social research’ by Lee (2005) and ‘Using freedom of information requests to facilitate research’ by Savage and Hyde (2014);  are also well worth a look. Lee’s assesses the ways FOI style legislation has been used by researchers in different countries and how the FOIA might be used by researchers in the UK, whereas Savage and Hyde provide more specific considerations of the role of the Act in mixed methodology research and outline ethical issues researchers need to be mindful of when resourcing the legislation.



  1. An Act of Parliament instituting a public “right of access” to information public authorities hold. As well as obliging public authorities to publish certain information about their activities, the Act enables members of the public to request information directly and free of charge provided the request is not ‘vexatious’ or the amount of labour required to collate this information is unreasonable.

Philip Archard, July 2016. 

Philip is a qualified social worker and ESRC funded PhD Candidate at the University of Nottingham.

Image courtesy of LAWARN.

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