What it takes for Queen Mary to declare a request for scientific data “vexatious”

2humptyWe need Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty to understand

It is a matter of public record  that Anna Sheridan made this Freedom of Information request to Queen Mary, University of London:

From: Anna Sheridan

1 November 2015

Dear Queen Mary, University of London,

I would like to request, for each of the 4 treatment arms of the
PACE trial, the 6 min walking test data

a) before treatment and
b) (where available) at follow-up (52 weeks)

I appreciate that my previous request was denied due to it being
deemed to require the creation of new data. This request has been
carefully chosen to avoid that problem, consisting of a request to
supply a list of numbers for each of the 4 treatment arms of the
trial.

Yours faithfully,

Anna Sheridan

This is a polite request. It is eminently reasonable because such behavioural data are crucial to the evaluation of what is essentially a cognitive behavioural model of chronic fatigue syndrome.

The data are clearly available in a form that could readily be released. How do we know? References are made to the specific data in the mediation paper. That paper refers to the data, but does not present analyses in sufficient detail to allow independent evaluation. The paper that depends so much on accepting investigators’ claims without supporting evidence. I don’t understand how the paper made it through competent independent peer-reviewed in its publish form. But that’s another story.

Queen Mary, University of London replied to Anna Sheridan’s request:

From: QM FOI Enquiries

Queen Mary, University of London
2 November 2015

We acknowledge receipt of your request and will respond as soon as we can.

And then

From: QM FOI Enquiries
Queen Mary, University of London

27 November 2015

FOI 2015/F266

Dear Dr. Sheridan
Thank you for your email.

I am afraid that we deem your request to be vexatious and therefore refuse
it under s.14(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Please accept this as a refusal notice.

If you are dissatisfied then you have the right to appeal to the
Information Commissioner. Please see [1]www.ico.org.uk for details.

Yours sincerely

Paul Smallcombe

Records & Information Compliance Manager

References

Visible links
1. http://www.ico.org.uk/

Anna Sheridan’s reply

From: Anna Sheridan

27 November 2015

Dear Queen Mary, University of London,
Please pass this on to the person who conducts Freedom of
Information reviews.

I am writing to request an internal review of Queen Mary,
University of London’s handling of my FOI request ‘Raw 6mwt Data
after treatment’.

I am particularly surprised that you see my request as vexatious –
it is certainly not my intention. Rather, this is a genuine attempt
to find a way to get a better understanding of the 6mwt PACE data
in a way that is acceptable to QMUL. As I stated in my request, I
acknowledge that a previous request of mine was considered to
require the creation of new data. This present request asks only
for a list of numbers for each of the 4 treatment arms of the trial
(which QMUL have acknowledged they hold), and was carefully defined
in the hope that it would be not be too time-consuming or onerous
for QMUL to fulfill.

As I’ve stated before, I have a genuine interest in this data, as
both a scientist and as a patient.

I would be grateful if you could reconsider this request, and
provide reasons why you think the request is considered vexatious.

A full history of my FOI request and all correspondence is
available on the Internet at this address:
https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/r…

Yours faithfully,

Anna Sheridan

Link to this

Which was met by Queen Mary University of London with quick rejection:

Dear Dr. Sheridan

We have carried out an internal review recently along similar lines and
decline to carry out another on this occasion.

If you wish to appeal further then you can find information on how to do
this on the website of the Information Commissioner’s Office at
[1]www.ico.org.uk
Yours sincerely

Paul Smallcombe
Queen Mary University of London

References

Visible links
1. http://www.ico.org.uk/

Things you or anyone else could do

Vexatious_colour-300x291Before I started looking into Queen Mary University’s refusal to release data, I had no idea what “vexatious” would mean in such contexts. Trying to conjure something up, I envisioned a rowdy torch-carrying crowd or maybe a rude boy. But now I think we need to think in terms of Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty.

1Humpty_Dumpty

“Vexatious” means whatever Queen Mary University wants it to mean. It simply serves as a post-hoc justification for rigidity that already existed, no matter who approaches them.

And why would Queen Mary University not want to release the data? It is common in such situations for investigators to refuse to release their data, because they have something to hide. Without such data, the scientific community is left having to trust the investigators’ dismissal of credible criticism of their interpretation of the results.

In contrast, if the data were released, the scientific community would have the opportunity to examine relationships among the self-report variables that the investigators designated post-hoc as primary outcomes, in relation to behavioral data. Maybe the investigators could vindicate themselves.

The repeated refusal of Queen Mary University to release these and other data should move the scientific community from its usual open-minded skepticism to dismissal of these claims. If Queen Mary University and the PACE investigators do not produce the data, the claims are not believable.

As an American outsider, I find it quite curious that the UK scientific community is so patiently accepting of the stonewalling by Queen Mary University and the PACE investigators. I think it reflects the inbreeding of the academia of a small island and a stifling politeness that precludes the vigorous criticism needed for assuring quality science.

I have my own Freedom of Information Act request submitted and under review.

I said

From: jcoynester@gmail.com [mailto:jcoynester@gmail.com] On Behalf Of James Coyne
Sent: 13 November 2015 18:14
To: McCrone, Paul
Cc: PLoS ONE
Subject: Request for data

Dear Professor McCrone
I have read with interest your 2012 article in PLOS One, “Adaptive Pacing, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Graded Exercise, and Specialist Medical Care for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome…”

I am interested in reproducing your empirical results, as well as conducting some additional exploratory sensitivity analyses.

Accordingly, and consistent with PLOS journals’ data sharing policies, I ask you to kindly provide me with a copy of the dataset in order to allow me to verify the substantive claims of your article through reanalysis.  I can read files in SPSS, XLS[x], or any reasonable ASCII format.

Thank you in advance. I look forward to your response.

I was told

Dear Professor Coyne,

My colleagues have passed on your request for information relating to 2012 article below. We will treat your request for this information as a request under the Freedom of information Act 2000. It was received by the university on 13th November 2015. We will endeavour to respond within the statutory 20 day time frame.

Kind Regards

Caroline Hill

Information Compliance Coordinator

Information Management and Compliance
Governance and Legal Services
King’s College London
Room 2.32
Franklin-Wilkins Building
Stamford Street
London SE1 9NH

T: 0207 848 7816

E: legal-compliance@kcl.ac.uk

But this time it is a different matter. I’m asking for data that must be made available as a condition for publishing in PLOS One. If my request is not granted, I will publicly seek to have the article retracted. Is that “vexatious”?

Make my day, Queen Mary University and PACE investigators.

Note: I am an Academic Editor at PLOS One. However, these opinions are entirely my own and they are not based on a consultation with other editors or the journal’s administration. Presumably my request for a retraction would be processed like anyone else’s request, with an appropriate due process and set of checks and balances that protect the integrity of the journal and the rights of all parties involved, including the larger scientific community.