Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Broken jaw: PNAS embargo on polar bear origin smashed

with 8 comments

Photo by flickrfavorites, via flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/38485387@N02/

Oddly, the very day I post on the availability of studies following PNAS embargoes, the Sunday Times of London broke a PNAS embargo. The story, on the origins of the polar bear, is datelined February 28, despite a 3 p.m. Eastern embargo today (March 1).

PNAS‘ note to reporters:

Due to an embargo break, PNAS is lifting the embargo early on the following paper:

Article #09-14266: “Complete mitochondrial genome of a Pleistocene jawbone unveils the origin of polar bear,” by Charlotte Lindqvist, Stephan Schuster, Yazhou Sun, Sandra Talbot, Ji Qi, Aakrosh Ratan, Lynn Tomsho, Lindsay Kasson, Eve Zeyl, Jon Aars, Webb Miller, Ólafur Ingólfsson, Lutz Bachmann, and Øystein Wiigd.

PNAS media and communications manager Jonathan Lifland responded to my request for details with the Sunday Times link, and this comment:

The majority of our infrequent embargo violations are accidental and typically the result of mislabeled copy that does not properly list the 3 p.m. EST Monday embargo expiration. We have a separate situation with the Sunday Times of London. With EurekAlert, we have prevented their editors and reporters from accessing the embargoed news section of EurekAlert, which is where pre-print copies of our articles are accessible. Restricting access is our primary sanction against offending organizations.

I asked Jonathan how long the sanction would be in place, and learned that this was the third such break by the Sunday Times:

At this time, we have no plans to remove the restriction we have placed on the editors and reporters from the Sunday Times.

We use a tiered system to sanction organizations that break the PNAS news embargo. An unintentional one-time violation typically warrants a warning and a request for a clarification of the handling processes for embargoed news, whereas a second violation results in at least a one-month restriction from access and an editor-level explanation of the steps that will be taken to prevent a repeat occurrence.

With the exception of the Sunday Times, we have not had any three-time repeat offenders. In the case of the Times, we have removed all reporters and editors from accessing our media materials. We still request clarification from any media outlet that violates our embargo rules, such as the one that happened this weekend, and we would consider the possibility of reducing/removing the restrictions we place on any organization’s reporters if we are assured (with sufficient detail in their explanation) that they plan to respect the PNAS embargo.

A note: Having worked at a number of news organizations, I think I understand them well enough to know that calling out individuals is not always productive. So I’ll generally refer to breaks by news organizations, rather than individuals. But I just can’t help myself here, since the reporter’s name is Jonathan Leake.

UPDATE, 4:05 p.m.: My sharp former colleague Brendan Maher noted that the Daily Mail also appears to have broken the embargo with a story posted at 8:57 p.m. (presumably GMT) yesterday. PNAS‘ Jonathan tells me by email: “We have a message out to the Daily Mail asking about the circumstances regarding the apparent violation.”

Note: This post has been updated from the original, in which I didn’t yet know which news organization had broken the embargo.


Written by Ivan Oransky

March 1, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

8 Responses

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  1. Perhaps the Sunday Times should hire a Plugg.

    But seriously, the Sunday papers are notorious for this. Some press offices hold back on their biggest stories till Monday, which I suspect is an attempt to avoid exactly this sort of thing. Of course, PNAS, which publishes on a Monday, can’t really help it.

    Ed Yong

    March 1, 2010 at 2:40 pm

  2. PNAS appeared to completely miss another embargo break from the Sunday Times, a couple weeks ago. A writeup of that autism/oxytocin paper was on its front page more than a day before the embargo lifted the following Monday evening. To prevent embargo breaks from the Times and other Sunday papers, Nature often waits until the following Monday to tout their sexiest studies.

    Ewen Callaway

    March 1, 2010 at 2:47 pm

  3. In our experience, the Sunday Times is a serial offender when it comes to breaking embargoes, and they are totally unapologetic about it, even when they have received representations on it from the chairman of one of the European medical societies for whom we do public relations. They seriously annoy all the other journalists who abide by the embargoes, and we try to avoid having anything to do with them.

    Emma Mason

    March 2, 2010 at 10:10 am

  4. This was very interesting reading about the Sunday Times and sanctions against embargo violators. I wasn’t aware of this – and admit I got slightly concerned for the upcoming publication of our paper when a co-author notified me of their article a day before the embargo lifted. In fact, I wrote the editors of these papers the following email (but of course never received a reply):

    To the Editors of the Times and Daily Mail:

    I am writing to formally object to your breach today of the press embargo on a scientific paper for which I am first and corresponding author of. The content was first reported by Jonathan Leake in the Times, and later published online in abbreviated form by the Mail. These are the relevant links:


    The press embargo for our journal article lifts tomorrow, 1 March, at 3:00 PM EST, after which time many other news agencies are expected to provide much more accurate reports that directly refer to our paper and its principal authors and their institutions, which your online pieces craftily do not. Perhaps this is a legal means by which you have gone around the press embargo, but regardless, your printed and internet reports are examples of shoddy journalism. I expect that the journal that will publish our paper this coming week may also be displeased with your papers’ conduct in this matter.

    Charlotte Lindqvist

    Charlotte Lindqvist

    March 7, 2010 at 1:13 am

    • Ms. Lindqvist,

      Do you think it is ever appropriate for journalists to publish information which is slated to appear in a peer reviewed journal?

      Let’s say a journalist were to learn details of an upcoming paper, before the embargoed press release even went out. (Perhaps the result has been floating around the scientific community for a while.) Should this journalist report what he knows, or wait for publication?

      Not saying this reflects what happened here, where embargo was broken one day before it lifted. But curious as to your thoughts.

      Matt Herper

      Matthew Herper

      March 7, 2010 at 7:07 pm

  5. A Monday embargo is bound to tempt a Sunday paper to break it. Another good reason to end the stupid embargo news management system.

    Paul Sutherland

    March 7, 2010 at 6:17 pm

  6. I think that when journalists bring out news stories on research results it is a powerful means to reach out to the public and make information from research studies available to the general public, and I certainly think it is appropriate to publish information that is appearing in peer-reviewed journals. But there is always a risk that results and single statements are taken out of context, misinterpreted and misrepresented. When news stories are based on rumors, or perhaps half-baked research studies that haven’t been published yet, isn’t this risk potentially going to be higher? Unless the journalist works together with the scientist. And wouldn’t it only be fair to readers and the public if they have the opportunity themselves to go to the source and seek out the original research paper it is based on? In any case, whether we think the embargo policy is stupid or not, as long as it exists, I find it to be very poor journalism, and unfair to readers, other journalists/media outlets, and the researchers and their journals, to break it.

    Charlotte Lindqvist

    March 9, 2010 at 10:07 am

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