Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

A strange policy at PLoS seems to let some publish before the embargo has lifted

with one comment

According to a press release sent out last week, the embargo on this PLoS Medicine study of whether seasonal flu shots are linked to a higher risk of H1N1 flu should have just lifted, at 5 p.m. Eastern.

But the Vancouver Sun posted this story on the study at 1:17 Pacific time, or 4:17 Eastern, 43 minutes before the embargo lifted.¬† And according to what I understand is the PLoS embargo policy, they didn’t break an embargo.

Huh?

Here’s why: No matter what a press release says, the embargo on a PLoS study may lift earlier, if the journal decides to post the study earlier. And this link was live when I checked it at about 4:30 p.m. Eastern. We’re talking about an hour, generally. So no big deal, right? Just send a note to the list saying, “study’s live, go ahead and publish.”

Except that PLoS doesn’t send such a message. At least they don’t seem to have ever done that.

I’ll let an irritated reporter who contacted me about this express my puzzlement better than I can:

WTF?

Why have an embargo and tell everyone to honor it if you don’t and you don’t bother to tell anyone?

Who has time to keep checking to see if the study has gone up?

Working on a high-volume wire service, I can assure you that we would not have time to keep checking. And we’d find it highly irritating, not to mention breaking the embargo we agreed to, to find out we could have published a while ago — or worse yet, that a competitor already did.

This all sounds strange to me, and I called PLoS’ media contacts for an explanation, or so they could let me know I was getting things wrong. In fact, I kind of hope I’m getting at least part of this wrong. But I haven’t heard back. I also haven’t heard back from them since contacting them about a break last week — in a post in which I noted the strange embargo policy.

Will of course update if I do.

Update (3:30 p.m. Eastern, 4/9/10): Read PLoS’ response to my questions.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

April 6, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. This seems like the worst of all possible worlds to me. You string people up with the strictures of embargoes but you don’t actually play through with it. Embargoes are a bilateral agreement – you need both parties to honour them. It’s all very bizarre.

    Ed Yong

    April 6, 2010 at 6:06 pm


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