Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Finally, some honesty! Journal: “rationale trumps logic” for our “freely available but embargoed” policy

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Last week, I was going through studies in the Journal of Urology — a journal I like to cover for its rigor and because it publishes a lot of papers that question the status quo in urology, despite being owned by the American Urological Association — and I saw something on “Accepted Manuscripts” that I hadn’t seen before:

All articles printed in The Journal of Urology® are embargoed until 3 PM ET the day they are published as corrected proofs online. Studies cannot be publicized as accepted manuscripts or uncorrected proofs.

This notice appeared on studies that were quite clearly posted online. And that meant this was an embargo of freely available material.

So I wrote to the journal’s editor, and the AUA press office:

I’m the executive editor of Reuters Health, and I blog at Embargo Watch. I’ve just started seeing this message on accepted manuscripts in the J Urol:

“All articles printed in The Journal of Urology® are embargoed until 3 PM ET the day they are published as corrected proofs online. Studies cannot be publicized as accepted manuscripts or uncorrected proofs.”

This is an embargo of freely available material, which defies logic. Can you explain your rationale, and say how you notify readers that the material is no longer embargoed?

Thanks in advance.

The response from Deborah F. Polly, executive editor and director of publications:

Our rationale for the embargo time is to prevent publicizing information that may be inaccurate or incorrect, which may lead to harmful patient care.  As clearly indicated on the articles, these are unedited manuscripts, which we recently began posting as a service to our authors. As an executive editor yourself, I would assume that you find errors during the editing process as well as the proofing process.

Readers will know that the material is no longer embargoed when they access the article online and no longer see that notification.  One of the strengths of The Journal of Urology is its integrity which we work very hard to achieve.  So rationale trumps logic in this particular instance.

Me:

Thanks for the response.

I certainly find errors during the editing and proofing process, but we don’t post stories before they’re edited and proofed, then call them “embargoed.” As you note, your rationale trumps logic.

And what makes it worse is that an embargo is an agreement between two parties. I can’t imagine that any reporter has ever agreed to an embargo on freely available material.

The cryptic response, apparently channeling Bob Dylan:

Times are changing.

I admitted I was perplexed:

Meaning what, exactly? That reporters have agreed to this embargo policy once you’ve made it clear that freely available material is “embargoed?”

Some clarity, sort of:

Of course we realize that this material is up for grabs thanks to today’s technology when nothing is sacred from reporters.  However, we hope that the embargo will at least serve notice to those who wish to publicize these articles “as is” that there is a real risk of reporting misinformation.  Not to mention the fact that the embargo warning protects our authors and journal.

My response:

What you’re describing is not an embargo. It’s a warning, and lots of journals do that for accepted manuscripts. But it’s not an embargo, and this is a misuse of whatever agreement you have with reporters.

Then things got cryptic again:

We’re using it as both – okay?

Ah, so reporters should agree to some embargo policy, and it’s OK if the rules change at some point, no need to notify anyone or tell them they can opt out. Right? Um, no.

Not in my book, and not to any reporter I know. It’s not an embargo.

I posted this whole exchange because I think it tells an important story about the word “embargo” being thrown around willy-nilly, in ways that, as the AUA notes, trump logic. You just can’t embargo something that’s freely available. If you want to warn readers that a manuscript isn’t final, go ahead, seems like a good idea to me. The New England Journal of Medicine isn’t afraid to do that.

But you can’t embargo material that’s available on your website, no matter how many scientific societies have tried. We’re not going to honor this “embargo.”

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Written by ivanoransky

October 3, 2012 at 1:30 pm

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