Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

The day I broke an embargo on Twitter

with 2 comments

Tetrachloroethylene, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll spend a fair amount of time on this blog reporting on embargo breaks like these by colleagues at other media outlets and at my own. And it seems there hasn’t been a break since Monday. So I thought it only fair to mention a time that I broke one — unintentionally — myself.

Last September, a press release for an embargoed study from Environmental Health came across my desk. In the study, researchers found that tetrachloroethylene — found in vinyl that used to coat pipes, and also known as perchlorethylene (PCE) — was linked to birth defects.

I actually wasn’t impressed by the study, for a few reasons. One, it wasn’t designed to find a cause-effect relationship, which was what the press release was suggesting the researchers had found.  The other was that none of the increased risks were statistically significant — in other words, researchers hadn’t proved that the links between PCE and birth defects weren’t due to chance.

So I sent out  tweet with a link to the study, pointing out its flaws.

Then a colleague at another news outlet emailed to ask me where it was being published. Apparently, he had seen the tweet without realizing there was a link in it.

I quickly realized that I had broken the embargo unintentionally.

Here’s how: BioMed Central sends the URLs of the studies at the bottom of their press releases. Those studies aren’t password-protected, so actually anyone who clicks on the URL — press or not — can access them. The intent, however, is that only press should have access before the embargo lifts. I was rushing that day, running through a lot of non-embargoed studies, and just didn’t check if this one was embargoed.

I deleted the tweet as soon as I realized my error and wrote to my colleague at the other news organization to thank him for making me realize what I’d done. I then wrote a note to Graeme Baldwin, at BioMed Central’s press office, to apologize.

Graeme was gracious, thanking me for acting quickly and letting him know. He said nothing seemed to have come from the accidental tweet, so no harm done. (I remember about a dozen people having clicked on the bit.ly link I used in my tweet, if memory serves.)

So, no harm, no foul. (And yes, you can break embargoes on Twitter.) But I figured that if I’m going to be chronicling others’ embargo breaks, I should come clean about my own.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

March 4, 2010 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Ivan, you’re not the first to break an embargo via Twitter. Last November the Arbiter-6 trial was the subject of not one but two embargo breaks, the second of which was a tweet from CNBC’s Mike Huckman. I wrote about the entire episode here:

    http://cardiobrief.org/2009/11/16/aha-arbiters-sunday-roller-coaster-ride-in-orlando/

    Best,

    Larry

    Larry Husten

    March 4, 2010 at 2:13 pm

  2. So here’s yet another standard a different outlet employs: the no harm, no foul criterion. As soon as you learn you’ve broken an embargo, you fess up, you retract the tweet, the blog entry, the wire story, whatever, no fuss, no muss. I like that standard, but not as much as the JAMA/Archives “willful disregard” policy, which is yet more lenient: http://embargowatch.wordpress.com/2010/02/26/upi-breaks-archives-of-general-psychiatry-embargo-on-pot-psychosis-study/

    Of course, the problem is, I’m not seeing a lot of evidence that journals are being consistent with their policies, however good or bad they may be.

    Ford Vox

    March 4, 2010 at 10:06 pm


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