Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

On embargoes, a dart and a laurel for Science

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scienceReaders of the Columbia Journalism Review will be familiar with the magazine’s Darts and Laurels section, which calls out journalism organizations for criticism and praise, respectively (and respectfully). So I hope it’s appropriate, given the subject of this post, that I borrow that metaphor for a moment for some commentary on recent embargo issues involving Science.

First, the dart: As Curtis Brainard reports in — wait for it — CJR, Science and Nature gave reporters just 24 hours’ notice on an announcement they were jointly publishing that “scientists in some countries will soon resume research on a deadly avian flu virus that was suspended last year amid concerns about safety and terrorism”:

Alice Henchley, the head of Nature’s press office, and Kathleen Wren, a press officer at Science, acknowledged that 24 hours doesn’t leave reporters much time, and offered the same two-part explanation for the short notice: They, too, were working under an unusually tight timeframe, having received notice of the H5N1 announcement less than a week before. More important, they thought that there was a high chance someone would break the embargo if they sent the press release earlier.

“You never want to abbreviate the embargo window if we can help it, but in this case it seemed like the best decision,” Wren said, adding that the journals organized a teleconference with the authors of the announcement during the embargo period, and that Science made the letter freely available online, as did Nature.

Curtis asked me for comment, and he accurately characterized my response as rejecting the press officers’ explanation:

“Look, this is one of those things where journals can come up with lots of reasons why they chose to do something,” he said. “It’s not at all clear to me why, within 24 hours of learning of this announcement, they couldn’t have given their press lists a draft. This gets to the concern about an embargo break, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense either. Either you trust the system you created or you don’t, and if you have that little faith in your system, then you have created a pretty bad system.”

When I said similar things about short embargoes at NEJM, it prompted the journal to start sending drafts of studies to reporters, just as publishers send galleys to book reviewers. I applauded that move, and I hope Science and Nature will consider something like it next time they’re in this situation.

Now the laurel: Science did the right thing this week with a study originally embargoed for today at 2 p.m.:

As a service to journalists covering research about severe, acute malnutrition in Malawi, appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine this week, Science is adjusting the embargo time on a related study by Michelle Smith and colleagues, entitled “Gut Microbiomes of Malawian Twin Pairs Discordant for Kwashiorkor,” and an accompanying Perspective by David Relman.

This Science Research Article and the related Perspective will be released from embargo at 5:00 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time on Wednesday, 30 January. We trust this change will allow journalists to write more thorough stories about efforts to understand and treat this important public health problem in Malawi and elsewhere. Upon publication at Sciencemag.org, the articles will be available to the public, with registration.

Science has done this sort of right thing before when their subject matter overlapped with NEJM’s. Not everyone does. So kudos to them — now let’s see “We trust this change will allow journalists to write more thorough stories” applied to a move to avoid short embargoes.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

January 31, 2013 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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