Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Stenographers, anyone? GMO rat study authors engineered embargo to prevent scrutiny

with 19 comments

A study of the effect of genetically modified corn on rats that you may have read about earlier this week doesn’t seem to have said much about whether GMOs are safe. But it sure said a lot about how the scientists who did the work used a crafty embargo to control their message.

In an excellent post over at the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, Andy Revkin says the study co-sponsored by the Sustainable Food Trust, is yet another example of the “single study syndrome:”

the habit of the more aggressive camps of advocates surrounding hot issues (e.g., climate, chemical exposure, fracking) to latch onto and push studies supporting an agenda, no matter how tenuous — or dubious — the research might be.

Revkin’s post, and the stories he links to, do an excellent deconstruction of the small rat study, so I’ll leave that to them.

It turns out there was likely an embargo break on the research. But that’s not why you’re reading about it here. What drew my attention — thanks to a few eagle-eyed Embargo Watch readers pointing me to this post by Thomas Lumley — is how the co-sponsors authors of the research handled the embargo. As the AFP noted in their original story, since updated:

Breaking with a long tradition in scientific journalism, the authors allowed a selected group of reporters to have access to the paper, provided they signed confidentiality agreements that prevented them from consulting other experts about the research before publication.

My Reuters colleagues described the embargo agreement in a similar way:

In an unusual move, the research group did not allow reporters to seek outside comment on their paper before its publication in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology and presentation at a news conference in London.

So did the BBC:

In a move regarded as unusual by the media, the French research group refused to provide copies of the journal paper to reporters in advance of its publication, unless they signed non-disclosure agreements. The NDAs would have prevented the journalists from approaching third-party researchers for comment.

To their credit, the reporters at the three outlets I cite above went back and refiled their stories with comment from scientists unrelated to the study, and from Monsanto, once the embargo lifted. But the Sustainable Food Trust — which, in their words, acted as “an amplifier” for the authors’ message by handling media relations for the study (see their comment below) — knew damn well reporters would be under pressure to file something the moment the embargo lifted — especially since this was an embargo likely to be broken, as it was — and that their hands would be tied as far as outside comment.

Sorry, folks, but this is an outrageous abuse of the embargo system — which, after all, is an agreement between two parties. One of the main reasons for embargoes — if you take many journals at their word — is to give reporters more time to write better stories. Part of how you do that is talking to outside experts. And scientists — ones interested in science, anyway, not those interested in spin and political points — should welcome that kind of scrutiny.

This speaks incredibly badly of the authors, whom I asked for comment but have not responded. The US-based PR firm handling media relations referred me to the Sustainable Food Trust, who haven’t responded yet either, who has bow responded in the comments.

Taking a cue from Revkin, I’m going to coin a new term: A stenographer’s embargo. The U.S. FDA tried this once, but later reversed themselves. Here’s hoping the Sustainable Food Trust doesn’t try it again, either.

Update, 3:30 p.m. Eastern, 9/21/12: Carl Zimmer, who comments below, notes on Twitter that this situation reminded him of the Darwinius affair.

Update, 4:45 p.m. Eastern, 9/21/12: Amos Zeeberg raises a good question below. Elsevier, which publishes Food and Chemical Toxicology, tells me that other than agreeing to the authors’ request to publish the study on a particular day, the journal had nothing to do with the embargo or its terms.

Update, 6:20 p.m. Eastern, 9/21/12: A commenter on Maggie Koerth-Baker’s post on this incident said the lead author of the study, Gilles-Éric Séralini, has a book on GMOs, among other things, coming out next week. The commenter’s right.

Update, 7:20 p.m. Eastern, 9/21/12: Sustainable Food Trust has responded, saying this was the authors’ embargo, and they were just acting as “an amplifier.” I’ve updated this post throughout to reflect their role, and added their comment. I also sent them this in an email:

I understand you were in a difficult position, but I also have to respectfully note that you were acting as agents of what was a truly outrageous abuse of the embargo system. My hope is that faced with the same situation again, you would decline to act on behalf of an author insisting on such terms, or even better convince him or her to use a typical embargo instead.

Hat tips: Colby Vorland, Rachael Ludwick

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Written by Ivan Oransky

September 21, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

19 Responses

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  1. I have no sympathy for stenographers. The more that journalists bend to these demands, the more people can corrupt the system. The scientists should be ashamed of their own behavior in this affair, but we also need to deliver a dose of shame to the reporters who caved to these outrageous demands, so as to discourage it from happening again.

    carlzimmer (@carlzimmer)

    September 21, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    • I absolutely agree. At the point that they are trying to get you to agree to something like this, why doesn’t the story you write instantly become “Authors of paper attempt to prevent criticism of their work”?

      If we’re going to do this right, we have to stop letting ourselves get jerked around by the chain of “must be first to publish!” Especially when that demand takes the place of “must be first to get the story right!”

      Maggie Koerth-Baker

      September 21, 2012 at 4:02 pm

  2. There’s one other major player involved: the journal. Where were they in all this? Were they in league with the oppressive conditions, as in the case of Darwinius, or did it just come from the research group? Did the journal have a different embargo?

    Amos Zeeberg

    September 21, 2012 at 3:51 pm

  3. Well spotted. Yet another reason for having serious doubts about the whole embargo charade when it comes to journals.

    So, who agreed to the authors’ conditions?

    The only positive on this one seems to be that the paper is available to anyone and everyone.

    Journalists would do their readers a massive favour if they refused to cover papers that are not accessible to all of their readers. This is nothing to do with open access. If a paper warrants a press release, then it also warrants being open to scrutiny by everyone who reads about it in a newspaper, magazine or any other outlet.

  4. Pity Canadian Govt. scientists who have to get their comments about anything cleared by “handlers” from the Prime Minister’s office. The politicization of science is not limited to corporations and “interest groups”. In Canada, at least, the government has been actively engineering Truth to be consistent with their pre-ordained policies.

    dougdelamatter (@dougdela)

    September 21, 2012 at 5:36 pm

  5. I had been under the impression that no one had gotten it. I didn’t know you had to be hand-picked and agree to lovingly coo about the results in a contract first.

    Hank Campbell (@HankCampbell)

    September 21, 2012 at 6:07 pm

  6. Heh. My favorite words in English: I was right.

  7. Dear Ivan, Sustainable Food Trust did not ‘co-sponsor’ the research. The research is a project entirely funded and owned by Professor Seralini and the team at CRIIGEN. The only role of SFT was to act as an amplifier for messages that we believe are important to be in the public domain. SFT did not set the embargo, in-fact we worked within a very difficult set of restrictions set for us by CRIIGEN and did our best to share information with others whilst at the same time having our hands completely tied as to what information we had permission to share. The only reason that Sustainable Food Trust has not responded to your request for a comment is because your email was only received this afternoon, and as I’m sure you can appreciate given everything that is going on, our small-team (3 people) were tied-up in meetings throughout today. Had we had the opportunity to respond properly we would have informed you that the embargo, decided-upon and set by CRIIGEN, was something that you would need to refer to them for comment. We hope this helps to clarify the truth of the situation.

    Sustainable Food Trust

    September 21, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    • Thanks very much for responding. I’ve updated and corrected the post. I have also tried to reach the authors, as you know, and they have yet to get back to me.

      ivanoransky

      September 21, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    • “Amplifying” messages that are not facts is one of the problems we have in Science and politics, and leads to misinformation and ignorance, and ultimately, apathy. It is easy to agree with people who have the same opinion, but we all need to “fact check.” This study will be referred to for years by anti-GMO crusaders, and when it is echoed by NGO’s who purport to be experts in the field (as an organization with the name “sustainable food trust” does), then the credibility is always there, if only slight. This organization was blinded by the message, and, frankly, should have known better. But since it is still prominently displayed on their website, I guess credibility isn’t their main concern.

      Justin

      September 23, 2012 at 9:52 am

    • The only role was an amplifier? That’s rich. The Sustainable Food Trust appears to have been deeply embedded in this. On 19 September, unSustainable released a 5 page media statement before independent scientists had seen the paper. To prepare a 5 page statement in itself suggests access for a least a few days before anyone else. At the end of the statement are these claims:

      Patrick Holden, Founding Director, Sustainable Food Trust
      Patrick Holden is the Founding Director of the Sustainable Food Trust; an international organisation established to promote the sustainable food movement through the collective power of organisations, people and communities. Between 1995 and 2010, Patrick was the Director of the Soil Association and became a much sought after speaker and campaigner for organic food and farming. He spearheaded a number of prominent food campaigns around BSE, pesticide residues and GM food. More recently, he was a member of the UK Government’s working group on the Foresight report into Future of Food and Farming and is Advisor to the Prince of Wales International Sustainability Unit.
      In 2005, Patrick was awarded the CBE for services to organic farming. He is the Patron of the Biodynamic Agricultural Association, Living Earth Land Trust and the Soil Association Land Trust. He is an internationally renowned expert on food systems and speaks at conferences around the world on the future of food and to encourage global cooperation amongst those working in sustainable agriculture.

      By the way, the first I heard of this story was in the following email from the UK on 18 September. To protect the sources, I have deleted the name of the sender.

      “Subject: GM and herbicide in the news tomorrow – please read

      Dear all,

      We have been tipped off by a responsible journalist about a paper to be published tomorrow at 2pm which describes the long-term health damage to rodents from eating GM maize. It describes itself as the “first long-term animal feeding trial studying lifetime effects of consumption of GM maize and a widely used herbicide” and will be released at a private press conference tomorrow at 1.30pm in London.

      We don’t know many details yet. From what we can gather this piece of work is being promoted by a PR company operating with Patrick Holden from the Sustainable Food Trust and they are keeping it very secretive, apparently to make sure that the pro-GM lobby doesn’t rubbish the science. We have been told it is to be published in a ‘leading peer-reviewed US journal’ but they won’t say which one…..”

      Rick Roush

      September 23, 2012 at 5:27 pm

  8. Yes, Seralini has a book to be published next week, so as his long-time collaborator Corinne Lepage. And there is also a movie (http://cdurable.info/Tous-Cobayes-Jean-Paul-Jaud-Film-OGM-Nucleaire-Torreton.html), by the same title of Seralini’s book which is also due next week (sorry for the French-speaking link). The movie will include those damning pictures of rats with tumours, so it seems the embargo was not for everyone… :-)

    Pascal Lapointe

    September 21, 2012 at 7:20 pm

  9. Ivan. I just want to make it abundantly clear (because Carl over at Discover has got the wrong end of the stick) that I did not sign an NDA. The BBC refused to the request, and so the first sight I had of the paper was after publication on the journal website. Nothing was posted on the BBC before we had had a chance to speak to other scientists unconnected with the research. I – and I assume Reuters and AFP felt the same way – believed the NDA demand was so out of the ordinary that its existence should be a feature in our coverage. But, I stress, this does not mean we signed the document. Quite the opposite in my case. Carl draws parallels to the Ida affair, although again this was not as straightforward as many like to report it. An NDA was signed in one part of the BBC (the part that makes documentaries) but not signed in the part that reports the news. The news journalists did their job on the day, writing up their copy with third-party comment. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8057465.stm
    Thanks again, Ivan, for your excellent and thoughtful blog. Jonathan.

    Jonathan Amos

    September 22, 2012 at 11:10 am

    • I don’t know if Reuters signed the restrictive agreement, but the article Ivan linked to, posted at exactly 7am ET on the 19th (the paper’s release date), doesn’t include any outside comment–just Seralini and a brief, old response from Monsanto to previous, similar research from the same group.

      As for AFP, the article Ivan linked to has been updated, but an older version, from the evening of the 19th (I guess that’s France time), includes quotes from Seralini, ominous quotes from French regulators, a we-haven’t-read-it-yet response from Monsanto, and an old GMO decision from European regulators. I.e., no reaction from outside scientists to the new study.

      settostun

      September 23, 2012 at 11:52 am

  10. Only 2 words : Bon appetit

    maxlamenace

    September 22, 2012 at 8:53 pm

  11. This is a problem of the embargo policy. The embargo policy by scientific journals exists to give journalists advance notice of papers exactly so they can do a due diligence and report knowledgeably when the embargo ends. Preventing access to the paper by knowledgeable scientists with a confidentiality agreement like this is exactly counter to the spirit of the embargo policy.

    Scientific journals have a policy that when a journalist breaks the embargo policy, that the offending journalist will not receive advance notice of papers to be published.

    Journalists should have a policy too, that when a scientific journal allows its embargo policy to be manipulated and misused like this, that journalists will not respect the embargo policies of that journal.

    Put the penalty for violations of the embargo policy where it belongs, with those who have the power and ability to dictate what that embargo policy is and should be, with the editors of the scientific journals in question, and their Publishers.

    But (of course), in this case, the Publisher in question is not run to disseminate and curate the scientific literature, the publisher is Elsevier, a for-profit publisher that is run to make a profit for its investors. When you go to the the Elsevier site, you can purchase this “paper” for $31.50.

    Is this an example of the adage of “any publicity is good publicity”? When you charge $31.50 to look at what you have published, what matters most is how many downloads there are. When you have a bad product, that people must buy before they can evaluate it, of course you want to hide how bad it is so that people will pay good money for something this bad.

    What ever they are doing at Elsevier that they pretend passes for peer review, in this case is embarrassingly bad. So bad that even the authors knew their work wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny by scientists, so they tied it up with a confidentiality agreement.

    This is an unacceptable way to run any part of the scientific literature, but is the natural consequence of for-profit publishing.

    daedalus2u

    September 29, 2012 at 12:19 pm

  12. Some follow up : the French Association of Scientific Journalists complain about the GES embargo :

    http://sciences.blogs.liberation.fr/home/2012/10/s%C3%A9ralini-et-les-ogm-une-d%C3%A9claration-de-lajspi.html

    (in French)

  13. And the European Union of Science Journalists association as well :

    The European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations (www.eusja.org) condemns the outrageous abuse of the embargo system that was perpetrated a few days ago to manipulate the press in order to get a favourable, acritical coverage of a study on the controversial and important issue of food safety in relationship to genetically modified organisms.

    The main reason for embargoes is to give reporters more time to write better stories, and to collect qualified opinions by trusted experts not related to the study.

    In the case of the paper by Seralini et al, journalists received the full-text in advance only after signing a non-disclosure agreement barring them from contacting any independent expert before publication.

    Such non-disclosure agreements go against the rationale for embargoes, and transform them from a useful tool to help science journalists to better inform the public into a tool for manipulating the media, and must then be condemned as unacceptable and unethical for journalists and for scientists.

    Science must be open to outside scrutiny by the society, and by the press.

    Signed unanimously by the EUSJA board
    (Barbie Drillsma, UK; Viola Egikova, Russia; Elmar Veerman,The Netherlands;
    Wolfgang Goede, Germany; Menelaos Sotiriou, Greece; Fabio Turone, Italy)
    in Bad Gastein, October 4th 2012.

    Emmanuel Grenier

    October 19, 2012 at 7:44 am


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