Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Why write a blog on embargoes?

with 9 comments

A few weeks ago, I wrote a guest post for the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Covering Health blog. In a nutshell, I told the story of an episode involving competing embargoes from the Cochrane Library and the Annals of Internal Medicine and wondered aloud about whom medical journal embargoes are really serving.

If you’re unfamiliar with embargoes: You’ve probably noticed that every major news organization — including mine, Reuters  — seems to publish stories on particular studies all at once. Embargoes are why.

A lot of journals, using services such as Eurekalert.org, release material to journalists before it’s officially published. Reporters agree not to publish anything based on those studies until that date, and in return they get more time to read the studies and obtain comments.

That would seem to be a good thing for science and health journalism, much of which is reliant on journals for news because it’s peer-reviewed — in other words, it’s not just a researcher shouting from a mountaintop — and punctuates the scientific process with “news events.”

Vincent Kiernan doesn’t agree. In his book, Embargoed Science, Kiernan argues that embargoes make journalists lazy, always chasing that week’s big studies. They become addicted to the journal hit, afraid to divert their attention to more original and enterprising reporting because their editors will give them grief for not covering that study everyone else seems to have covered.

But even if embargoes are a necessary evil, they’re not uniform, and how each organization deals with them provides case studies in some of the chinks in embargoes’ armor.

I’ve been noodling on embargoes for a while. In November 2007, I wrote about the World Health Organization punishing the New York Times for breaking an embargo on a report on measles deaths. That item was picked up by mediabistro.com’s FishBowlNY and by Slate’s Jack Shafer.

The WHO was hardly the first to punish a major news organization for an embargo break. In 2002, Pat Anstett of the Detroit Free Press published a story on the fact that the Women’s Health Initiative study had found risks to using hormone replacement therapy. Anstett said she got that information from women who had been told the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute was ending the yet-unpublished study. But the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), which was getting ready to print a report on it, along with a full-court press, said Anstett had broken an embargo. They banned her and the Free Press from receiving their embargoed material.

I’ve seen other trends. One is that some journals are releasing more and more embargoed content less than 24 hours before it’s published. I have to admit to being a bit puzzled about how that’s supposed to garner more informed press coverage.

Then there is the response of journals and others to breaks by those who never agreed to embargoes in the first place. There was this kerfuffle, for example, over CDC autism data last fall, involving autism bloggers, the journal Pediatrics, and the CDC.

These stories, as well as comments and other feedback to those posts and to my recent Covering Health post, made me think there was an opportunity for a long-term blog examining trends in embargoes and how they were affecting news coverage. Hence this blog.

On it, I’m going to try to keep track of anecdotes about embargoes. Are they helping journalists? Helping journals? Who’s breaking them? And, most important, are they helping the general public?

My hope is that by chronicling these stories and trends, I can help make embargoes work better. For some, like Kiernan, that may mean doing away with them. For others, it may mean refining them.

I hope you’ll send me your own stories, ideas, and feedback. I’ll agree to whatever embargo you want — as long as it’s fair.


Written by Ivan Oransky

February 23, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses

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  1. Oh, I’m gonna like this. Peer-review is what makes science work, but I always had the aching suspicion the journal model as we see it now is out-moded. They began as tools of the scientific societies, but somehow became beholden to the printer. I think PLoS has the right idea.

    The embargo system is handy, but troublesome. It tends to keep reporters from questioning the science as it is presented in the press release.

    Keep it up, Ivan.


    February 23, 2010 at 6:38 pm

  2. Ivan, this is such a great idea on so many levels. Superior high-fives.

    Now that I’m thinking about it, surprised there hasn’t been a personalized clearinghouse for this established yet… I’ll be watching Embargo Watch closely 🙂

    Dave Mosher

    February 24, 2010 at 7:39 pm

  3. Yes. Nice one.

    Can I suggest regular postings of the announcements that we all receive from EurekAlert! on bust embargoes?

    I agree with Vincent Kiernan.

    Michael Kenward

    February 24, 2010 at 10:43 pm

  4. Many thanks for all of the encouragement. Please keep commenting, sending ideas, and giving me feedback — positive and negative.

    @Michael: Absolutely, right there with you. I started with yesterday’s post:


    If you see one I’ve missed, please post a comment or email it to me at ivan-oransky [at] erols.com.


    February 25, 2010 at 2:46 pm

  5. An embargo is an agreement between 2 parties. Journals aren’t required to give reporters advanced access to articles. If a journalist writes about research before it’s published, then the readers can’t look at the science for themselves! How is that good for the public? Maybe the embargo should just be gotten rid of.


    February 26, 2010 at 6:23 pm

  6. Check out techcrunch.com. They have a long and very funny history with embargoes.

    Scott Yates

    February 27, 2010 at 7:36 am

  7. This is good. I’ve been a vocal and often cranky critic of embargo policies since joining Reuters in 2005. As usual in these cases, I note that anything I contribute to this blog will represent my thoughts, not the thoughts, opinions, policies or operations of Reuters.

    Robert MacMillan

    February 27, 2010 at 8:39 am

  8. Ivan–
    I’m sure you and many others have noticed that when an embargoed journal article has some commercial import, the stock of the companies involved generally moves long before the embargo time. Wall Street insiders are getting their hands on the information and “releasing” it–that is, making their investments in a public marketplace–before the embargo. That makes those of us who adhere to embargoes complicit in fraud that victimizes ordinary investors. On those grounds, I’d argue that embargoes should be abolished.

    Paul Raeburn

    March 6, 2010 at 3:31 am

  9. I understand some of the crtiticisms of the embargo system, some of which are mentioned here, but I also think it has good points.
    I don’t know abotu EurekAlert but at Nature, where I work, the NPG group of journals has a registered press list. Journalists on that list (individuals, not agencies) get not just a press release but access to the PDF of the paper, and contact details of the authors and News and Views author if there is one. We also say in our terms that journalists can show/discuss the paper with an independent scientist(s) for an opinion on the work if the same embargo terms are undtertaken by them.

    One of the points of the embargo system is to avoid misleading hype, which is important for a technical area like science where the general public may not know how best to judge it. Two topical cases in point are climate research and vaccine research.

    The actual point of an embargo system (from the journal’s perspective) is to enable media coverage of peer-reviewed research to be accurate, for the benefit of the general public.

    I haven’t covered everything here and I am aware of all kinds of problems and challenges for this goal (eg blogging, conferences, etc) – speaking as a journal editor, we are always open to constructive suggestions about our policies on embargoes or any other editorial polices. For Nature journals anyone can send such comments by email to authors@nature.com.


    March 17, 2010 at 3:41 am

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