Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

A shot in the embargo: In which I politely call bullshit on the journal Pediatrics

with 5 comments

NPR’s Shots blog — full disclosure, the guy who runs it is a good friend of mine — has a smart post up today about how embargoes, in the hands of stubborn journals who want media coverage, can be bad for the public health.

Reporter David Schultz writes that in an October 31st post pegged to a New England Journal of Medicine study about a mumps outbreak in New York, he wanted to include a study appearing this week in the journal Pediatrics, embargoed for first thing Monday morning of this week:

After we found out there were three papers about the mumps outbreak, rather than one, we contacted Pediatrics, the journal that was preparing to publish the third paper, to see if the editors would lift the embargo early so we could give you a fuller picture of the outbreak. They declined.

Pediatrics editor Lewis First told NPR that

…dropping the embargo under the circumstances would have been impossible because the journal’s staff didn’t have enough time to prepare the paper for early publication online.

Here’s where I get to call unequivocal bullshit.

The paper Schultz covered today — and whose embargo he asked Pediatrics to lift — has been completely done and dusted, and on the journal’s press site, since last Tuesday, October 30. The AAP even sent out an email that day to tell reporters it was available, at 11:04 a.m. Eastern, along with this paragraph:

THIRD DOSE OF MMR VACCINE MAY HELP CONTROL MUMPS OUTBREAK

A third dose of measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine may have helped to control a mumps outbreak in a highly vaccinated New York community during 2009 and 2010. The study, “Impact of a Third Dose of Measles-Mumps-Rubella Vaccine in a Mumps Outbreak,” will be published in the December 2012 issue of Pediatrics (released online Nov. 5). Most of the people in the affected community who reported having mumps symptoms had previously received the recommended two doses of MMR vaccine. A third-dose of MMR vaccine was offered to eligible 11 to 17-year-olds. After the vaccine intervention, mumps declined by 96 percent in this age group and declined by 75.6 percent in the community overall. This is the first known study to assess the impact of a third-dose intervention targeted to a specific age group of a highly vaccinated population.

[Embargoed to 12:01 a.m. ET Monday, Nov. 5. For an embargoed copy of the study, contact the AAP Department of Communications. For an interview with one of the study authors, contact xxxx.]

That was more than a day before the NEJM embargo lifted at 5 p.m. on the 31st.  What exactly did the staff need to do to “prepare,” other than change the embargo to match NEJM’s?

Nothing.

I told NPR that the episode is

…another example of a journal putting its own publicity over the public health.

Pediatrics’ First disagreed.

He wishes this all had happened differently and that all the information could have been released at the same time. “I’m not trying to block the exits,” he said. “I’m trying to get everything to publication as quickly as I can,” he said. “We don’t talk about [our papers] saying ‘Ooh, let’s hold onto this one so the spotlight can shine on our journal.’ It’s not like that at all.”

Nonsense. If this was the first time Pediatrics had stubbornly refused to lift an embargo and — heaven forbid — give up some of that limelight, I’d say, alright, we all screw up. But it’s not. There was this case involving autism in 2009, and this one involving circumcision earlier this year. (In fairness, I’ll note a case in which they did the right thing last year.)

I can only hope that NPR’s spotlight — and mine — will make the journal think twice next time a reporter makes a request in the interest of public health.

And in case anyone’s wondering, I love pediatricians. My dad was was one. But he didn’t put up with doublespeak from people in his profession, and I’m not going to either.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

November 5, 2012 at 10:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. Not only do I like pediatricians, but I also like the PR folks at Pediatrics. Their weekly email of embargoed articles is extremely helpful, and they’ve been most responsive to all of my requests. Is it possible the editor of Pediatrics was not in full communication with his PR staff when he made his misstatement? Is it possible that NPR may have received a different answer had they spoken to the PR folks and not the editor?

    Bob Finn

    November 5, 2012 at 11:53 am

    • The PR folks at Pediatrics, who are top-notch, referred David Schultz to the editor for answers to our questions.

      • In that case the editor clearly did not have accurate information about the Pediatrics mumps study. I would have gone back to the PR folks immediately to try to get this straightened out. Perhaps David Schultz did that. In any case, this seems less like venality and more like a misunderstanding.

        Bob Finn

        November 6, 2012 at 12:19 pm

  2. Want to add insult to injury? The basic information in the Pediatrics study (I covered it for an outlet) was already published back in 2010: http://www.pediatricnews.com/news/infectious-diseases/single-article/20da4c1e2016c66004976daec5315ee3.html?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=78012

    All the details aren’t there, but enough of it is there to have written about… and to have justified an early lift of the embargo.

    Tara

    November 5, 2012 at 1:44 pm

  3. NPR should have disregarded this embargo and included this study in the story anyway. It would have made for a better story and better served its readers and the public. They only people such an action wouldn’t serve would be the journal’s PR reps, but NPR isn’t here to help PR efforts.

    MZ

    June 1, 2013 at 10:30 pm


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