Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

It’s not just the Ingelfinger Rule: Scientists don’t want other scientists scooping them either

with 2 comments

One of our stringers was recently pitched what sounded like a worthwhile study coming out in a journal the press officer described as a “major” one in its field. Great, I said, let’s see the manuscript, which I figured was under embargo.

Sorry, can’t show you that, you can only go on the gossamer of information we’ve released, because we don’t know when the study will be published yet. When we pushed, we found out it that it was in fact a major journal in its field. But it was also a journal that definitely embargoes, and that would certainly not be happy to see anything substantive in the press about the study.

Hello, Ingelfinger Rule. We’re obviously not going to cover the study at this point, both because we’ve always agreed to that journal’s embargo, and at least as importantly because we can’t vet the actual research.

Of course, in this case the press office never should have been promoting a study they couldn’t actually give us. They wanted to have their cake and eat it too: Get coverage for their institution, without jeopardizing their researchers’ publication.

Maybe I’ll send them a copy ofThe Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

The issues at the heart of that story — reporting on poorly vetted (or non-peer reviewed) research, and the Ingelfinger Rule — were the subject of a recent London meeting of STEMPRA, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine Public Relations Association. The meeting, led by the Society for Applied Microbiology’s communications manager Lucy Harper, was whether — and how — to publicize research that hadn’t yet been peer-reviewed. That’s just as important as the companion question of whether journalists should cover such research, a subject I’ve touched on in a few posts here and elsewhere.

The meeting — please read Jo Brodie’s comprehensive post here — focused mostly on protocol and etiquette for conference presentations, which are usually not peer-reviewed in any strict sense. Should scientists be explicitly warned that journalists may be in the audience? Should journalists and others be allowed to use Twitter — a subject I’ve covered too? Ingelfinger also figured prominently, since it’s at conferences that reporters often approach scientists for more details about the work they’re presenting.

The Ingelfinger Rule is the source of a lot of grumbling among journalists, and rightfully so. But Jo’s report reminded me that it may be only part of what keeps many scientists clammed up whenever they see a reporter’s notebook.

What triggered the reminder that there’s more to scientists’ reluctance to speak than Ingelfinger was this passage:

Scientists can be (not unreasonably) wary of publicising preliminary data – there’s the fear that future publication might be harder if the content has been widely shared in advance (see Ingelfinger rule, below) but also the concern that sharing data via non-published means could result in others ‘scooping’ them. One scientist that Lucy spoke to wasn’t so concerned about potential risks to future publications, but was worried that a larger and better financed research team might take advantage of their data.

Some scientists don’t seem concerned about this at all. As Jo notes:

I’m aware of the contrast with a few scientists (Peter Murray-Rust, Cameron Neylon, Jean-Claude Bradley), all of whom have spoken at either Science Blogging 2008 or Science Online 2009 (in London, Science Online 2010 is in September) on making their results available in real-time by posting them on the web and getting immediate feedback from comments. I’m not sure if chemistry / biophysics is less amenable to being scooped by other teams than other fields making this a ‘safer’ thing to do, let alone a helpful and completely transparent way to conduct the research that is paid for by the public (through the research councils).

Still, enough are, probably more so among those in industry who need to care about patents at least as much as they care about papers. For many scientists, being scooped by competitors is far worse than letting a newspaper scoop a journal.

This is not a defense of the Ingelfinger Rule, which I still think has a significant chilling effect on scientists’ willingness to speak to the press. The problem there isn’t so much that I want to see more poorly-vetted research make it into news reports, but that it’s often the details scientists aren’t willing to share that would allow reporters to decide whether something is worth covering.

Still, as I sift through the bottlenecks and blockades on the flow of scientific information, it’s important to account for all of them, not just embargoes, despite their major role. The question is who is served by such bottlenecks and blockades. Is it science, writ large? Journals? Stockholders? If the justification is better-informed science coverage by journalists, the people who are supposed to benefit are readers, listeners, and viewers, so the “not scooped by another scientist” rationale needs examination there.

A final thought, not so much about embargoes as about press releases: It doesn’t sound as though the subject of whether to promote non-peer reviewed research outside of a conference was a prominent topic at the meeting, but that’s covered in STEMPRA’s well-thought out Guide to Being a Press Officer.

So are lots of other issues. I particularly like the suggestion that all press releases include a paragraph on limitations. I can tell you, based on the deluge of releases that shows up in my inbox every day, that a lot of press officers could stand to read the guide. Be assured that it’s the releases that follow that suggestion that I am much more likely to pick up — meaning request the full study to properly vet it. Read STEMPRA’s guide, if you haven’t already.

Thanks to Denise Graveline for flagging the STEMPRA meeting for me, to Ed Yong for putting out the word on Twitter to connect me with  Jo Brodie, and to Jo for being my eyes and ears at the event.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

June 18, 2010 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Ivan–the first of the two reasons you stated for not covering this doesn’t make sense to me. You haven’t agreed to any embargo on the paper until the journal officially sends it to you–hearing about it independently doesn’t obligate you, I feel, even if you regularly work with the journals. UK reporters would run with this study in a minute, by the way. Of course, deciding not to cover because you don’t have enough info is perfectably reasonable.

    john travis

    June 18, 2010 at 10:06 am

    • Excellent point, John. While I think it’s technically correct that we wouldn’t be obligated under these circumstances, these things are always subject to interpretation, and the journal would be the one who got to decide whether we’d face sanctions. Perhaps I’m treading more carefully than others would feel the need to, because I’m at a big news organization, with lots of colleagues that might lose access. Or because being able to comment on embargo policies means I need to be cautious. But in any case, it’s also true that we don’t have enough info on this study, which would be enough to decline coverage anyway.

      ivanoransky

      June 18, 2010 at 10:43 am


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