Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Universe Today jettisons embargoes

with 5 comments

In a move reminiscent of Tech Crunch announcing in 2008 that they would no longer honor any embargoes, astronomy site Universe Today said today it would “no longer participate in news story embargoes.”

But Universe Today’s new policy is far kinder and gentler than Tech Crunch’s. In a post titled “We’re Done With Embargoes,” publisher Fraser Cain wrote:

…if you give us a news release with an embargo, we’re not going to spring into action. We’re going to wait until you’ve announced it publicly on the internet before we decide if we going to cover it, and how we’re going to cover it. We’re not going to access password protected journal pages, or participate in insider conference calls. If you have a news scoop, we’re going to ask you if we can report on this right now, and if we can’t, we’re going to ask you to call back later.

Just to be clear, Universe Today isn’t going to be breaking embargoes, we’re just not going to be participating in them any more.

Cain explained the rationale:

Embargoes let the public relations officials decide who’s a journalist and who isn’t. It lets them control who gets secret advanced knowledge of news stories, and who doesn’t. It stacks the deck against bloggers, science fiction reporters, twitterers, and anyone who wants to report interesting stories on science.

The embargo system is broken, designed for a time when print reporters needed the lead time to get their stories prepared. It needs to catch up to the internet age, and evolve (or probably just disappear). Everybody agrees that it needs to be restructured, but nobody knows what to do about it. And the biggest source of news in our industry, NASA, never uses embargoes. They just announce their news – or announce an upcoming press conference. Some people poorly speculate on what NASA is going to announce, but everyone knows something’s coming, and they all discover what it is at the same moment.

Cain is right about NASA. A minor point: When a NASA scientist is publishing in a journal that uses embargoes, they have to abide by them. And the agency hasn’t exactly been on the side of bloggers — or transparency.

Other astronomy groups that release news, such as the American Astronomical Society, use embargoes. In fact, they recently earned a spot on the Embargo Watch Honor Roll for reversing a “freely available but embargoed” policy.

Back to Universe Today, which says it has more than 4 million pageviews per month: There are some nuances to the new policy. I asked Cain some questions by email this morning:

Will you let all of the agencies/journals/societies etc. who now send you embargoed materials know about your policy, or do you feel that’s unnecessary given that you are still honoring them?

I’m not sure I’m going to bother letting the journals know about the policy. If someone asks why we’re not reporting their stories as quickly, I’ll respond with our policy. I’ll also be putting it into our about us page, so people who want to send us embargoed information can see our stance on it. We don’t have a human relationship with any of the journals, Eureka Alert, Science, Nature, etc. I gave a head’s up to a few people, just to make sure I wasn’t committing some horrible faux pas that I wasn’t aware of.

What made you decide to honor them but not begin to report on anything until the material was in the public domain? If you’re still going to honor embargoes, why not use whatever extra time there is to research and report the story?

I wanted to take a stand, but I’m not going to break embargo. Think of it as a non-violent protest. :-)  It’s not like we’re going to keep a close eye on the story, rev our engines, and then start working the moment the news breaks. We’re going to treat embargoed stories exactly how we treat the rest of the stories we cover. We’ll notice an public announcement, decide if it’s newsworthy and report on it – in whatever way makes the most sense to our readers.

Did you consider withdrawing from the system entirely, so that if you learned something that was going to be embargoed, but hadn’t ever agreed to any embargoes, you could run with it anyway?

I don’t think it makes sense to step away from the embargoed news entirely. I’m not looking to punish the researchers who happen to publish through an embargoed journal. That’s why we’ll still report on embargoed stories, just at the same time that the no-access journalists can start working on it. We’re busy people, and will essentially stop looking at the embargo news releases from Science, Nature, EurekaAlert, etc. We’ll replace those newsfeeds with the public versions. That’s what I had to do for the first 7 years of managing Universe Today, so it’s really just going back to an earlier part of my process. :-)

Are you concerned that it will be more difficult to get paywalled studies from journals? One of the advantages of going through EurekAlert/etc. is that it gives you access, of course.

Accessing the journal articles behind the paywall is a good question. In the past I just contacted the researchers and asked them to email me a copy of the journal, or only reported on the stories where I could access the journals. So we’ll probably just go back to doing that.

My take: This is a noteworthy development. It’s unlikely to make much of a dent in the embargo system, because the site isn’t running out in front of embargoes or really taking away any oomph from those who embargo findings. But Universe Today should be commended for sacrificing timeliness to encourage reporting, and for trying to level the playing field.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

March 31, 2011 at 10:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. I am not certain I have ever seen this UniverseToday website make any “news” (per your observation) so I am not certain that this really matters. If one of the more prominent science/space news websites did/said something like this … maybe.

    Science Guy

    March 31, 2011 at 10:39 am

    • What happened to the concept of the level playing field that has been central to embargo-setting? If UniverseToday has been deemed thus far worthy of receiving embargoed material, we need not insult it now that it has decided not to participate. I’ve set many embargoes, but have not heard of picking and choosing the media outlets to participate based on their prominence, and I suspect any organization that does so will face great outrage from news organizations–and rightly so.

      Denise Graveline

      March 31, 2011 at 11:31 am

  2. Ivan:

    I’m not really sure I get this. Universe Today will only deal with publicly available stories, saying they’re exiting the embargo system. Since the embargo system was set up to allow those writers who wanted to, to get advance access to material, agreeing to hold to a specific release time, isn’t Universe Today, in effect, adhering to the embargo? Or even just taking themselves out of the competitive game by agreeing to start reporting after everyone else does? And if they aren’t going to inform the folks who send them embargoed stuff, then how is this a great philosophical stance? Not having seen Universe Today until today, I’m not sure what impact their stand will make. Just my thoughts.

    Earle Holland

    March 31, 2011 at 11:25 am

  3. @Science Guy – I’m not sure what your definition is for “prominent”. Universe Today is the second highest traffic space news site after Space.com. We have more than 2 million readers a month, and 60,000+ RSS readers. We’re a very popular site you’ve never heard of, and doesn’t your comment strike you as ironic?

    @Earle Holland – We’re taking ourselves out of the game. I’ve talked with the PIOs that I actually have a relationship with, but mostly we’re faceless logins on their servers. They couldn’t care less if we stopped accessing their embargoed material.

    Fraser Cain

    March 31, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    • Fraser:

      What I meant was that in the past, when entities announced that they were backing out of the embargo system, what they meant was that they no longer honored embargo coverage prohibitions, that as soon as they got wind of a story, they ran with it, embargo or not. If I understand it correctly, ya’ll have said that until the information is public, which practically means post-embargo, ya’ll won’t touch it. I certainly have no argument with that, only that it differs from most previous “I-won’t-play-the-embargo-game” statements. To each his own . . .

      Earle Holland

      March 31, 2011 at 2:16 pm


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