What should I do if I receive a FOIA request?

FOIA notifications or requests from agencies regarding your HMS research should be directed Bill Meyer, Litigation Paralegal, in the Office of the General Counsel (Bill Meyer) with a cc to the Office of Research Compliance (ari@hms.harvard.edu). Both offices will work closely with you, your administrators, and other Harvard offices to assess and provide an appropriate response to the request. Harvard will request redaction of personal and proprietary information contained in the documents in accordance with legal redaction standards. Your participation and partnership in identifying personal and proprietary information contained in the requested documents, including in any images contained in the documents, is critical. 

What is an information access request law?

Information access request laws provide a person the right to request access to an agency’s records for information. All Federal agencies and many state agencies have information access laws and are subject to information requests.

What is FOIA?

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the US Federal law that provides the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions.  A FOIA request can be made by any person to any agency for any Federal agency record. 

What research documents can be FOIA’d?

All correspondence, proposals, reports, award information and non-compliance finding documents held by Federal agencies about business with Harvard are subject to FOIA and disclosure requests. This includes any images, audio recordings or videos contained in documents submitted to the agencies. 

What does a regulatory request for information look like?

Regulatory requests most often will come in the form of a letter or an email notification from a government agency letting you know that someone (a member of the public) has made a request for information involving you or your Harvard work. The information being sought will always be communications or documents that you provided to or had with the government agency. 

Notifications often contain a list of requested documents that the agency is being asked to provide to the information requestor. Sometimes notifications contain instructions about next steps that Harvard must take in response to the request. Other times, the notification will inform you about what documents have already been released to the requestor. 

Who makes regulatory information requests?

Any member of the public can make a request for information under an information access law to any government agency or public institution that falls under the jurisdiction of that law. This includes journalists, researchers, competitors, activists, whistleblowers and people who you have denied information and/or data to upon a direct request. 

Could my information could be subject to information requests?

Most information held by Harvard Medical School and Harvard University is not directly subject to information access requests. Information or documents that you send to a government agency or state-run institution are subject to information requests. This includes communications with funders and program officials, regulatory and oversight officials, collaborators and colleagues at some public institutions and information or documents submitted in the course of conducting business with government entities. 

What agencies or institutions are subject to information requests?

All Federal agencies and many states have information access laws and are subject to information requests. This can include public colleges and universities. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a public records law and our state agencies and institutions are subject to information requests under the Massachusetts Public Records Law.

When a request is received by a public entity under an information access law, the agency/institution must turn over all relevant records that are in its possession or control unless exempted under the access law. 

What about requests for information or documents from non-government agencies?

Requests for documents or information under a subpoena or other legal mechanism must always be referred to the Office of the General Counsel immediately.

Request for information from media sources should be referred to HMS’s Office for Communications and External Relations.

If you receive any other request for information or documents related to research, contact HMS’s Office for Research Compliance. We will work with you to evaluate the request and connect you to the appropriate offices, as needed. 

OGC Information Access Request FAQs:

What kind of information can be withheld under FOIA? (Login required)

What do the Freedom of Information Act and the Shelby Amendment have to do with my research? (Login required)

What happens when a federal agency receives a FOIA request for a Harvard grant? (Login required)

What happens when a federal agency receives a Shelby Amendment request relating to a Harvard grant? (Login required)

What data does the Shelby Amendment cover? (Login required)

Is Harvard subject to state-based public records requirements? (Login required)

If I collaborate with a faculty member at a public university does this make my work and/or correspondence subject to state public records law? (Login required)


Freedom of Information Act

FOIA Exemptions

Massachusetts Public Records Law