Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Wiley lifts embargo on smoking Mayans study early after biologist posts a press release he never signed up for

with 6 comments

This morning, University of California, Davis genome biologist and well-known science blogger Jonathan Eisen sent out a tweet that, not surprisingly, caught my attention:

So – if people keep sending me embargoed press releases even when I do not ask for them, do I have to follow the embargo?

My response, as Embargo Watch readers could have predicted:

No, @phylogenomics, you don’t have to follow embargoes you never agreed to: bit.ly/d3KQ52 Re: bit.ly/yKfC1a

That first link was to a 2010 Embargo Watch post titled, “You’re doing it wrong: Sending material and calling it embargoed before an agreement doesn’t make it so.”

Apparently, Eisen agreed with me, also not surprisingly. And he was none too happy about the press release spam in his inbox — from a list from which he’d tried to unsubscribe. So he did something I’ve been expecting someone to: He posted the press release, in an item called “How to stop press release spam? Post embargoed PRs. Here’s one about Mayans using tobacco:”

I am sick of receiving dozens of unsolicited press releases, especially those in topics not related to my work.  So from now on I think I will be posting the press releases whether there is an embargo or not, since I did not agree to any embargo in these cases (see Ivan Oransky’s post at Embargo Watch about this).

I contacted Wiley, who publishes the journal in question — Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry — about Eisen’s post. They said they’d just picked up on it, and were figuring out what to do. Within two hours, they’d lifted the embargo. Here’s the top of the email that went out:

The embargo on this story has been broken and so the embargo is lifted effective immediately.

The embargo exists to ensure that as little time as possible elapses between media coverage of a news story and the full paper being available, and to provide journalists and others in the media with time to research and write about the story ahead of the article publication. We will now endeavour to publish the paper online as soon as possible to reduce this time.

In some sense, I’ve been waiting for this kind of thing to happen — not encouraging it, mind you, since I work at a large news organization and can’t afford to jeopardize all of my colleagues’ embargoed access – but expecting it. Brian Reid predicted something similar in an early guest post. Embargoes are porous, as I’ve noted before, and that’s particularly true when press lists turn out to be less clean than publicists would like us to think.

The episode is certainly a wake-up call for those publicists, who should probably invest some time and technology in vetting their press lists — and pronto. That’s important not just so Eisen and others’ inboxes don’t get clogged. Embargoing studies — which as I”ve noted before, benefits journals — carries a responsibility to make sure those embargoes are enforceable and well-managed.

And this doesn’t mean I think fewer people should have access to embargoed material, as I’ve also noted before. I just think that publicists shouldn’t be sending embargoed studies to anyone who hasn’t agreed to an embargo.

Update, 9 a.m. Eastern, 1/11/12: Wiley sent this in response to my question about how Eisen ended up on the embargoed list:

Jonathan was on our lists because we’ve been in touch before about a range of content that he was interested in. It seems we hadn’t appreciated that the focus of his interest is much narrower than we thought.

We recognise that sending people what they want and only what they want is a bit of a challenge, and we’ve been working on our systems and processes over the last few months. We will shortly be launching our new press room which has an embargoed login area and as part of this initiative we will be getting in touch with all of our contacts to offer them access and to find out how they want to work with us.

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Written by ivanoransky

January 10, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. Interesting. But how does he feel about violating Gary Larson’s Far Side copyright with that image?

    John R Platt (@johnrplatt)

    January 10, 2012 at 2:12 pm

  2. As always, your blog articles are a precious resource for publicists and public information officers everywhere. I think that posts like this one are particularly useful for budget-limited organizations that struggle to find the balance between public outreach and institutional resources, or for publicists who are inexperienced with the specificities of the promotion of research. You really hit the issue on the head when you spoke about incorrect (or on the flip side, incomplete) contact lists and the “shotgun” approach to pitching.

    William Raillant-Clark

    January 11, 2012 at 9:40 am

  3. Well it is true I had been “in touch” with the person who sent the PR before. But the first contact was in 2009 and was unsolicited email to me about a paper in New Phytologist they thought I would be interested in on a topic on evolution but not in my area. My response was “I do not blog about non open access material” or something like that. Then the next contact with this individual was when I asked about access to a book on the World’s Oceans. They sent me a link to a web site with proofs of the book and were very nice. The next contact from Ben was the one I posted. So – yes – I write about evolution and I write about oceans. But I never expressed any interested in receiving press releases, especially embargoed ones. I note – I am writing here only about the communications with this one person – Ben Norman – who seems quite responsible and nice and good and I did not mean to pick on him in my post. It was just his message was the last straw so to speak.

    I note however I have received other emails with PRs from Wiley. I have deleted many of them so do not have full records but I clearly was added to some PR list by someone at Wiley without asking me if I was interested in being on such a list. I get that sometimes one receives email from people. I even use email occasionally. But being added to a distribution list without asking me – or blasting me with announcements which are not of direct relevance – that is not acceptable. It is a form of SPAM. And Wiley and others should have opt-in systems for PRs not “sign up people because we had a conversation about a related topics” systems.

    Jonathan Eisen

    January 11, 2012 at 9:49 am

  4. Some of this problem stems from the laziness of casting a news release into the world based on an old spreadsheet of contacts. With some effort, a publicist can find reporters who actually write about the subject at hand and send a personal email alerting them to a development. It’s more work, yes, but it’s also more effective. Sometimes it’s incredibly effective, and everyone is left happy.

    Eric Sorensen

    January 11, 2012 at 1:27 pm


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