Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Another chink in the Ingelfinger armor? Arsenic life talk forces Science to release paper early, without embargo

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Rosie Redfield

As this post goes live, so too go live two Science papers refuting the heavily criticized “arsenic life” paper published in the journal in 2010. (If you’re not familiar with the findings, I’d recommend Carl Zimmer’s excellent work on this subject, which he gathers here. You can read about the various embargo issues involving NASA and Science here.)

Embargo Watch readers may realize there’s something unusual about that.

For one, Science papers are usually released at 2 p.m. Eastern on Thursdays, not 8 p.m. Eastern on Sundays. And the reason for the unusual time is that Rosie Redfield, a University of British Columbia biologist and author of one of the Science papers being published, is giving a talk right now at Evolpalooza in which she plans to describe the findings.

Redfield blogged her plans in advance of her talk. (Full disclosure: To prepare for the talk, she asked me for some background information and links about the Ingelfinger Rule, which bans authors from seeking out press coverage before a paper’s embargo lifts. I sent her several cases I’ve covered here at Embargo Watch.) Redfield noted Science’s take on the Ingelfinger Rule:

From the info sheet Science sends to authors:

The embargo policy ensures that no single reporter or news organization gains an advantage over others and that reporters have an equal amount of time to write full and accurate stories. Your cooperation with this policy helps us gain excellent coverage for your research and protects you from problems that may jeopardize your paper’s publication.

(Ooh!  “…problems that may jeopardize your paper’s publication“!)

Science asks authors to not initiate contact with the press about their publication, and to only talk to members of the press who have agreed to respect the embargo.  Authors are free to present their data at conferences, but are asked to inform Science of this in advance.

Redfield’s talk tonight is in keeping with her open science approach. She has been refuting the original paper in as public a way as I’ve seen, as Zimmer and others have noted. She blogged about it, and also posted her submitted manuscript on arXiv.

Her blog post also noted that the paper was scheduled for publication in late July. But we aren’t of course in late July yet. I started hearing rumblings about an early release for the papers late last week, but the story coalesced Sunday when it became clear that at least three reporters from national outlets had the manuscripts, and had been told the embargo would lift at 8 p.m. tonight. So I checked with Ginger Pinholster, Office of Public Programs director at AAAS, which publishes Science. She told me:

…these materials will be included in the SciPak when it rolls out at 8 pm. They will be for immediate release. We ask you not to tweet/blog it in advance of the SciPak release. We were informed Dr. Redfield has a public lecture this evening.

Fair enough, and good on Science for not letting Ingelfinger stand in the way of releasing the paper, even moving it up a few weeks earlier than planned. That’s the most important thing about this episode.

But there’s another Embargo Watch issue here. I checked a few times, and I didn’t see Redfield et al’s paper, or the other one, among the embargoed Science materials on EurekAlert — despite the fact that I knew at least several reporters had it. I asked Pinholster why Science hadn’t just released the paper under embargo a few days ago, and let the embargo lift at 8 p.m. to coincide with Redfield’s talk:

We had a list a reporters who had requested a heads up on any developments on this story. We did our best to reach as many of them as we could on Friday.

I’m all for scoops and enterprising reporting, but I’m not sure I like the precedent of “if you ask for a heads up on this story, we’ll send you an embargoed paper, but not everyone else.” Embargo agreements are between two parties, and what reporters are supposed to get in exchange for upholding an embargo — an embargo that benefits journals by concentrating attention on timed releases — is a level playing field, and access for everyone at the same time. This paper wasn’t really “for immediate release” — it was “for immediate release if you didn’t know to ask for it in advance.”

So while I’m glad Science did the right thing by releasing the paper early, I’d suggest that next time, they send out an advance copy to everyone who had agreed to their embargo. (And I should note that Pinholster engages thoughtfully with such suggestions; she did when the arsenic life paper was first released.)

After all, from the sheet that Science sends to authors (quoted by Redfield in her blog post):

The embargo policy ensures that no single reporter or news organization gains an advantage over others and that reporters have an equal amount of time to write full and accurate stories.

That ain’t what happened here, folks.

Update, 8:10 pm Eastern, 7/8/12: Pinholster tells me that as per standard procedure, Science notified Redfield’s institution, UBC, about the changed embargo time.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

July 8, 2012 at 8:00 pm

Posted in nonalienembargo

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