Good intentions, unintended consequences at American Thoracic Society
One of my staff writers was sitting down a few weeks ago to report out a study from The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine (AJRCCM) when she noticed some small print at the top of the cover page: “Media embargo until 2 weeks after above posting date.” The page also directed reporters to the embargo policy.
The paper was an advance online publication, and the policy was just a few weeks old, it turns out, so it wasn’t unexpected that I hadn’t noticed it before. What was unusual, however, was that I wasn’t accessing the paper in question through a press site. I was accessing it through HighWire, a Stanford University service that many publishers use to make electronic versions of their journals available.
In other words, according to this embargo, the press can’t write about papers for two weeks while they’re freely available to any HighWire subscriber — and that’s a lot of doctors at a lot of medical schools and hospitals.
This was a new one for me. Embargoed papers not being available to anyone but the press, sure. But available to many doctors — and anyone doctors showed them to — for two weeks before we could write about them? The only policy I knew of that came anywhere close was The New England Journal of Medicine. Their 5 p.m. Eastern Wednesday embargoes mean that some doctors may get their copies of the Journal in their mailboxes a day or two before the press reports on a particular study, because it’s mailed out earlier in the week. The policy “is designed primarily to ensure that physician subscribers have their copy of the Journal at about the same time their patients hear about new research through the news media.”
Even though I couldn’t quite understand the AJRCCM embargo policy, I told my staff writer to hold off on writing her report, and I called Brian Kell, director of communications and marketing at the American Thoracic Society, which publishes AJRCCM.
We spoke once briefly, and Kell listened to my concerns. Over the course of that conversation and a voicemail message he left after saying he’d discuss the issue with other staff and get back to me, Kell explained that the Society changed the policy in response to complaints that they were holding their research embargoed for too long.
Before the change, they had released material to reporters, embargoed for six to eight weeks. The advance online material they did not write press releases on, however, was not embargoed. Now, everything released online was under an embargo.
Kell said he understood how I might find the policy problematic. But, he said, “For now, we want to keep with the embargo policy that we set. Remember, this moved up the date of publication for the research by six to eight weeks, so we think we’re trying to meet the media and reporters’ desire to make it earlier.”
Other than from me, the Society hadn’t heard any complaints. “We think it puts everyone on a level playing field. But it if doesn’t work, we can revisit it.” That would probably mean not releasing the content to reporters until a day before the embargo breaks, he said.
So it seemed to me that this was a well-intentioned move that was having unintended consequences. The Society was trying to solve a problem, and there were competing legitimate interests.
To make sure I wasn’t missing something, or that this wasn’t more common than I thought, I ran the policy by a few people on either side of the public relations and reporter aisles. None of them had ever heard of such a thing.
“There is no greater sin than ignoring information that is, nominally, public,” Brian Reid, of 6 Degrees PR, a strategic communications firm for pharma and biotech companies, wrote me by email. “If it’s on HighWire, you can bet that investors are looking at it. That kind of information asymmetry is unfair, needless and — in the case of financial journalists — something that they should not (and generally do not) abet.”
Reid also noted that some medical meetings seem to be drifting this way: “Posters are especially problematic. Some are up the duration of the meeting, but are technically embargoed for when they are moderated.”
Another source even said I’d be well within my rights to break the embargo, since we weren’t actually getting the material by way of a press embargo agreement.
So what should we do? The AJRCCM is a highly cited journal — ranked first in the “respiratory system” by my Thomson Reuters Scientific colleagues’ Journal Citation Reports. That means it’s very likely to publish studies our physician readers, and to some extent our consumer audience, will find useful. We should definitely cover worthwhile research in it.
But should we uphold this “embargo?” There’s really nothing stopping us from running stories on AJRCCM studies as soon as they’re posted. And in a competitive media marketplace, it’s important to note that there’s really nothing stopping any of my competitors from doing the same thing, whether they get the studies from HighWire or from a doctor with access to the service.
For now, I think we’ll uphold it. Good intentions go a long way for me, even if I’d rather be able to publish as soon as we can, to serve our readers best. But if competitors start running stories before we do, I’ll have to reconsider. And if the Society changes its mind, hopefully in a way that makes better sense for us, we’d welcome that.