Be aware of institutional procedures
All researchers, regardless of their research area, should be aware of the proper institutional procedures for responding to state open records requests and federal FOIA requests. Animal rights activists commonly request information related to hot button research topics; however, they have also requested information on research that is often considered less controversial, such as sleep apnea research involving mice. The most commonly requested information includes:
- Research involving nonhuman primates, cats, and dogs
- Neuroscience research
- Eye movement studies
- Advanced trauma training using animals
- Addiction research involving nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs
Identify a point person
Identify a point person within the institution who will be responsible for state open records and federal FOIA requests to ensure the system facilitates an orderly response. The designated point person should be familiar with the sensitive nature of animal research documents and have a full understanding of both the federal FOIA and state open records laws. Depending on the administrative structure of the institution, the point person may be someone within the office of the university counsel, the vice president of research, or the signing official within the grants office. All researchers using animals should know the point person and the appropriate institutional procedure for responding to a federal FOIA or state open records request. PIs should also meet with the point person to discuss their research before the institution responds to a request for information.
Institutions should establish separate procedures for responding to requests from federal agencies seeking information in response to federal FOIA requests and individual and organizations requesting information under the state open records laws. PIs should be fully versed in the procedures the point person will follow when receiving these requests.
Understand which records are subject to disclosure
Understand which records are subject to disclosure. Any information in a federal agency’s possession at the time a request is made must be disclosed under the federal FOIA, unless part or all of the information falls within one of nine limited statutory exemptions. Many state open records laws are modeled after the federal FOIA. However, there may be important differences based on the state law and court interpretations of the state law. For example, IACUC minutes are subject to open records requests in some states, but not in others (some state courts have held that IACUCs are public bodies while others have held that they are not). Several states also have adopted statutory exemptions that permit the names, addresses and phone numbers of researchers to be redacted. All differences should be fully understood by the designated point person and the institution’s legal counsel.
Be aware of commonly requested documents
Be aware of commonly requested documents.
Understand how animals rights activists target you
Understand how animal rights activists target you. Animal rights activists use NIH’s Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tool Expenditures and Reports (RePORTER) database (formerly CRISP) to identify animal research. This information is then used to file FOIA requests. Be aware that the use of sensitive search terms when writing grant abstracts may make you more vulnerable to targeting. In some cases, it may not be feasible to avoid these terms in an abstract. However, this should not deter researchers from publishing their important work. Search terms commonly used by animal rights activists include:
- “Macaca,” “Monkey,” “Primate,” “Dog,” “Cat” or the names of other species
- “Cocaine,” “Tobacco,” “Alcohol” and names of other drugs
- “Eye Coil,” “Vision,” “Visual” or other terms commonly used in vision research
Do not post personal information in the public domain
Do not post personal information in the public domain. Animal rights activists commonly obtain PIs’ information on university websites. When possible, refrain from posting on the Internet :
- Pictures of PIs or research animals
- Personal email addresses
- Personal phone numbers
- Home addresses
- The name of the institutional official. USDA redacts this information from inspection reports; however, some universities provide this information on their websites. This information is more appropriately provided to investigators and staff on a non-public intranet site.
Be in full compliance with relevant laws and regulations
Always be in full compliance with relevant laws and regulations, but do not provide extraneous information that is not required by law; extraneous information may be taken out of context and used by animal rights activists to target you. For example,
- Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) minutes do not have to be included as an addendum to the PHS Assurance Statement. There are very few instances where the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW) needs to review IACUC minutes.
- Rats, mice, and birds are not covered by the Animal Welfare Act and do not need to be included in USDA Annual Reports. When submitting noncompliance reports to OLAW, review the reports to ensure they include only the required information. The following suggestions may help ensure only required information is reported:
- Call OLAW before submitting a noncompliance report. OLAW can give situation specific advice and assure that the report includes all required information.
- Describe the noncompliance in terms that are accurate and sufficient, without going beyond what is required by law.
- Contact university counsel for assistance in writing noncompliance reports.
- Ensure only the required individuals are included in noncompliance reports. OLAW requires the grant number and category of personnel involved (e.g., principal or co-principal investigator, technician, animal caretaker, student, veterinarian, etc.) be included but does not require names.
- Review your institution’s PHS assurance to determine what information must be reported. There may be different requirements for non PHS-funded research.
Accurately estimate costs of implying with an open records request
Accurately estimate the costs of complying with a state open records request. Institutions should establish a policy that captures the actual costs of complying with records requests and enforce it. This policy should include the cost of searching, reviewing, mailing, and duplicating the records sought. For example, in accordance with federal FOIA regulations, the NIH charges FOIA requestors 10 cents per page for duplication, and search time is charged at the hourly rate of the searcher (first 2 hours of search time and the first 100 pages of duplication are free).8 If estimated costs exceed a certain amount, it may also be appropriate to request advance payment of fees before responding to a FOIA or open records request. Review your state open records statute to determine the appropriate charges.
Review all exemptions
Review all exemptions to determine whether sensitive information falls within the protection of an exemption. The federal FOIA and most state open records laws contain limited statutory exemptions designed to protect sensitive information. Additionally, some state courts have held that certain information is protected from disclosure based on state common law even if no statutory exemption exists in the state open records laws.9 When responding to a state open records request, review all relevant exemptions to identify the information that is legally protected by an exemption. For more information about exemptions under state open records laws, review your state’s open records law. See below for more information about exemptions in the federal FOIA.
Apply institutional document retention policies
Apply institutional document retention policies and keep all records required by law or otherwise necessary for business, research or operational purposes. For example, under federal law, financial records, supporting documents, statistical records, and all other records pertinent to a grant award are required to be retained by the grant recipient for a period of three years. The three-year period begins from the date of the submission of the final expenditure report or, for awards that are renewed quarterly or annually, from the date of the submission of the quarterly or annual financial report. After this period, documents generally do not need to be retained unless required by state law.