Saturday, June 04, 2011

Strange George Mason University interpretations of Virginia FOI requests

In a May 28th Climate Audit post, Steve McIntyre sees some perfect contrast to George Mason University's provision of documents when requested under Virginia's Freedom of Information law, versus University of Virginia's resistance to a demand for records for a witch hunt under criminal prosecution laws by the state's denialist Attorney General. Ron Bailey, who's worked as a 'science' correspondent at 'Reason', doesn't even understand that the threat of criminal prosecution wasn't a FOIA request.

Steve includes this strange response that GMU sent with the FOI records:

The materials in this USB are being provided in compliance with the Virginia FOIA. Many of the documents are published research papers that are copyrighted by their respective publishers. All other documents are copyrighted by Edward J. Wegman and Yasmin H. Said or by their respective authors. All rights are reserved. These documents may not be forwarded to a third party. Also included in this USB is the George Mason University policy document 4007 on academic misconduct. This policy requires confidentiality for all parties including complainants, in this case Professor Raymond Bradley. This confidentiality requirement was violated by Professor Bradley.

The alleged confidentiality requirement and violation seem wrong. Prof Bradley wasn't an employee of GMU acting in the scope of his employment when he complained that GMU Professor Wegman was stealing Bradley's work, so Bradley could tell GMU to go stuff it when it talks about its confidentiality policy. They'd have to prove he signed a confidentiality agreement instead if they feel like whining.

This FOI response isn't itself confidential and in no way binds the recipient to confidentiality.

The copyright claims are a little trickier. Generally documents created by employees shift copyright ownership to the employer, GMU. That can be changed by agreement with the employer, though.

I have seen before the claim that documents subject to third-party copyright can't be released by government agencies. I think it's a weak argument, much weaker than say, climate data-sharing that was contractually limited from disclosure, but GMU isn't actually saying that because it is, in fact, releasing the documents. It's not clear what GMU is saying other than weirdly warning the journalist to only reproduce the documents to the extent allowed under exceptions to copyright. (Climate law seems to be as much about copyright, libel, and free expression as it is about environmental law. My knowledge of those areas is somewhat limited, and every state and country is different).

Meanwhile, some commenters at Climate Audit try mightily to clear up confusion between criminal threats versus FOI requests, and between narrowly targeted FOI request of GMU versus the 9,000 page FOI request that has also been asked of UVa in addition to the criminal witchhunting. Somehow, though, people aren't listening.

UPDATE: Climate Audit link enabled at the top of the post for anyone who wishes to review the post or perhaps provide a helpful comment.

UPDATE 2: A funny thing I left out of this post is that attorneys for the denialists are being allowed to review all the items that are being claimed for exclusion from the FOI, which most certainly is NOT how such things are usually done (normally you only get to see a summary and reason for exclusion). I previously focused on the fact that one of the reviewing attorneys is Chris Horner, who's written some frankly ridiculous fluff on climate. We can only hope is legal ethics are made of stronger stuff. No one that I've seen has noted that the other lawyer, one David Schnare Esq. Phd, ain't just no lawyer but is the Director of the denialist Institute. In other words, the lawyer who is supposedly the filter keeping the exempt material from reaching the client is, in fact, the client.

This is a crazy level of bending over backward by UVa to accommodate the FOI request, and still Climate Audit is crying tears.


Anonymous said...

Presumably GMU rules are:
Get away with plagiarism, copyright resides with GMU.
Get caught plagiarising, copyright resides with the authors.

Except in plagiarism cases, the authors were the originators of the works plagiarised, not the copy paste thieves.

IIRC there's more than one third of the WR that cannot possibly be deemed to be the Wegman team's original work. So their claim to copyright is highly questionable at best. If there's any justice, any claim to copyright by the plagiarists surely must evaporate as soon as there's a whiff of plagiarism substantiated, especially plagiarism plus falsification.

Perhaps UVA should ask GMU for an explanation / clarification.

Presumably, this indications for the likely progress glacially-slow Wegman / GMU investigation Koch-up. Almost certainly they're stalling for time.

Puzzled mouse

J Bowers said...

Some GMU policy links:

University Policy Number 4007

This policy applies to all full-time and part-time employees of the university, to post baccalaureate graduate and professional students who are engaged in Federally-funded or non-coursework-related research, to undergraduate students who are involved in Federally-funded research, and to any other person engaged in teaching, research, or scholarship at, and under the control of, or affiliated with, the university.

GMU University Policy Number 1117 - Responding to Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for records.

Seems to be specific excerpts from...

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act - FOIA Council [PDF]

(Sorry for an OT aside, but can anyone point me to the Idso Form 990 scan showing he was paid hundreds of thousands one year? Searched everywhere here for it.)

Anonymous said...

Do you mean Michaels, JB?

Steve Bloom

J Bowers said...

I'm sure it was one of the Idsos, Steve. Possibly Sherwood, as seen in one of Eli's IRS Form 990 nuggets, IIRC.

Anonymous said...

SourceWatch has some material. Sweet times for the Idsos from the look of it, especially lately. The failure of the numbers to add up is peculiar.

Steve Bloom

EliRabett said...

Eli thinks you mean Fred Singer getting 143K for the NIPCC thing although the bunny would not doubt that the IDSOs were on the wingnut welfare train.

John Mashey said...

This response was from a README file that was very likely written by Wegman and just passed along by GMU FOIA officer Phil Hunt. Most of this stuff was not material GMU had, but had to get from Wegman.
The confidentiality claim is nonsense.

All this is covered in Strange Tales and Emails."

I'm glad Eli included the keyword "strange" in his title :-)

J Bowers said...

Thanks Eli, I've got the Singer/SEPP 990, as well as the Soon and Baliunas related ones. It must have been from somewhere else, then. I'm positive it was $300k+ and an Idso, via something like CO2science. Feel free to chuck me down the Rabett Hole. I think I'll sign up to an online agency these docs are available through. They're very useful for shattering the "climate scientists are after the money" meme elsewhere. Ta.

J Bowers said...

Sorry, Steve, I didn't see your comment. Awesome, thanks!

Martin Vermeer said...

Doesn't look good:

(3) Data, records or information of a propriety nature produced or collected by or for faculty or staff of George Mason University (other than the University’s financial or administrative records) in the conduct of or as a result of study or research on medical, scientific, technical or scholarly issues, where such data, records, or information has not been publicly released, published, copyrighted or patented. Code of Virginia §2.2-3705.4 (3).

Doesn't look good... the Code of Virginia ref should be (4), and "propriety" was no doubt invented by the same guy as "plagerism" :-)

More seriously, this does not clearly and unambiguously protect the confidentiality of pre-publication scientific correspondence -- although I suspect U of Va is going to use precisely this clause for that.

Virginia is one state in which I would not want to be a researcher.

Rattus Norvegicus said...

If I were a lawyer, I would certainly argue that this section protects that data and correspondence.

J Bowers said...

My last aside, promise. If you want to go poking through Form 990s, here's a link. Type in your favourite "institute" and a year, download the PDF. Very interesting reads in some cases. Nice work if you can get it.

Hank Roberts said...

> policy requires confidentiality for all parties including complainants

So, the University policy requires the University to keep everything they have, including complaints, confidential -- izzat what it says?

... confidentiality _for_ ... complainants
... confidentiality _by_ ... complainants

Anonymous said...

Virginia FOIA law is more complicated than just the FOIA statute, as it pertains to professors, just n.b. -

I'll pick Fred as anonymouse handle

J Bowers said...

Fred, surely both "scientific" and "scholarly issues" exempts the professors' works from FOI? For instance, Mann's email discussions are unpublished scholarly and scientific discussions.

"2.2-3705.4(4) -- Data, records or information of a proprietary nature produced or collected by or for faculty or staff of public institutions of higher education, other than the institutions' financial or administrative records, in the conduct of or as a result of study or research on medical, scientific, technical or scholarly issues, whether sponsored by the institution alone or in conjunction with a governmental body or a private concern, where such data, records or information has not been publicly released, published, copyrighted or patented."

Martin Vermeer said...

Anon Fred, rather than pointing out that things are more complicated, it just rubs in how poorly Va's FOIA is formulated from an academic viewpoint. Yes, sure researchers are duty bound to abide by the law; they are also duty bound to their science, IMHO of course, not to find themselves employed in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Here's to hoping the Court recognizes this, and the damage it will do.

Ian Forrester said...

J. Bowers, here is Form 990 for the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change which is an Idso organization:

Not sure if this is what you are looking for or not but it does show compensation to the Idsos.

Anonymous said...

Re: Schnare: He used to have some choice quotes on his website: paraphrased here ( and presumably still available in full from the wayback machine. Ironically, at the same time as he was denigrating environmentalists for being sick people, I believe that he was working at the EPA...

(also, in testimony to the Senate - - he suggested that "liming" was an appropriate response to ocean acidification)

Brian said...

So Schnare beat out the Freakonomics guys with the lime solution? Nice catch. I think RealClimate spelled out a few tiny snags with that approach, but they should't be a problem for any assumption-generating economist.

J Bowers said...

Thanks Ian. I see Ferguson of SPPI got a nice little quarter of a million dollar handout. Who'd want climate scientists to be right?