Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

A journal — Science — does the right thing (with an embargo break interlude)

with 5 comments

Given how many journals are published every week — and now, every day — it’s inevitable that by the law of averages, related studies will show up in the same week. Sometimes, those are planned, as in the case of Science and Nature‘s coordinated publication of the human genome in 2001.

More often, however, it’s coincidence. In fact, I wrote about one such situation in a January guest post for Covering Health, the Association of Health Care Journalists’ blog. (Disclosure: I’m AHCJ treasurer.) In that case, two studies related to opioid use were coming out within 26 hours of one another. I asked the press officer for the one coming out later if the journal would consider moving their embargo up; she politely declined. The one with the later embargo, which was in a bigger journal, and was somewhat more newsworthy, got much more coverage.

UCLA Health Sciences senior media relations officer Elaine Schmidt had a similar experience about two years ago. “In pitching a UCLA autism study to be published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, I learned from reporters at top-tier news outlets that the New England Journal of Medicine was releasing another big autism study,” Schmidt told me by email this week. “Its embargo lifted the day before UCLA’s.  The reporters wanted to cover the UCLA study, too, but knew their editors would not devote space to autism research two days in a row.”

Schmidt contacted the press officer at Cell Press, the publisher for the genetics journal, which was not issuing its own release. She asked if the journal could move the embargo earlier — from noon EST on Jan. 10 to 5 p.m. EST on Jan. 9.  “That way, journalists could include the UCLA findings in their coverage of the NEJM study,” she said.

The journal replied much as the relevant press officer had responded to me:

We cannot move up the embargo time for this issue or this article.   I did discuss it with our team here, but as I explained earlier, it is our policy and we cannot move the embargo.  Please let the media who have contacted you know that the embargo for this Jan. 11th article remains tomorrow: Jan. 10th at 12 Noon EST.

As a result, Elaine said, the UCLA study was only covered by news wires such as Reuters — hey, Elaine, what’s wrong with wires? — and online outlets, while the NEJM study was covered by more outlets, including USA Today and US News and World Report.

Reporters weren’t afraid to give Elaine an earful. A sampling (brackets Elaine’s):

Journals are the ones who invented embargoes so they could control press coverage. But I wonder if this is really what they had in mind…

The authors should get up in arms about this. I hope you explain to them the sequence of events.

All the journal has to do is blast out a one-line notice [about an embargo change] to everyone on the press list…..  I don’t think their policy served the authors very well….

Given that frequent course of events, it was refreshing to get this email Monday morning about a paper whose embargo was originally scheduled to lift at 2 p.m. Eastern Thursday:

The embargo on the forthcoming Science Express article, “Analysis of Genetic Inheritance in a Family Quartet by Whole-Genome Sequencing,” by Roach et al., will lift at 5 pm U.S. ET, Wednesday, 10 March, in order to enable journalists to report on the body of research on this specific topic being published this week. A summary of the paper appears below, and the manuscript can be downloaded from the SciPak Web site…For information about a similar paper appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine this week, please contact…

The result, of course, is that stories are much more likely to include mentions of both NEJM and Science.

Now for an interruption: It turns out the embargo was broken on this study, but not by a typical media outlet, or a science blogger, or other usual suspect. The University of Utah posted a press release (since taken down) at 4:59 p.m. (doesn’t say which time zone) on Tuesday. Thanks to a number of Twitter followers who alerted me to the break.

I emailed Ginger Pinholster, director of public programs at Science publisher AAAS, to find out if Science would lift the embargo early because of the posting. She replied:

I just phoned the university’s public affairs office. [Assistant vice president for public affairs] Chris Nelson reported to me that he also had just learned about the error, for which he apologized. He said that it was a strictly accidental posting related to how their automated posting system works. They were in the process of trying to remove the posting as soon as possible, so I didn’t keep him on the phone. However, typically what my office will do in cases like this, assuming it was a first instance, is to request a written explanation of what happened, along with a detailed plan for how the institution intends to prevent it from happening again in the future. Public information officers who are unable for whatever reason to support our embargo guidelines are ineligible to benefit from our free, automated-notification system, which is how they learn about forthcoming Science, Science Translational Medicine, and Science Signaling papers involving their researchers.

Ginger later emailed me to say that Nelson sent her a detailed accounting of the error along with an apology, which she accepted. So, no harm, no foul.

Back to the decision to make the embargo earlier: What made this situation different? Hard to say. No one keeps track of such things, but a good guess is that it happens about a half-dozen times per year at Science. I asked for some more about the rationale from the Science press office, and they said the special notice email spoke for itself.

So I can only guess. One difference is that Science and NEJM are both very highly cited and frequently covered journals that are unlikely to be threatened by one another. Another is that there are more resources devoted to covering health nowadays than covering science — something noted by others, including Cristine Russell — and it was more likely Science would benefit from a NEJM coat-tail effect.

Whatever the reason, I applaud the move, and hope other journals will consider it moving forward.


Written by Ivan Oransky

March 10, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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5 Responses

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  1. Great post, Ivan! But one correction, please.

    Due to the study’s later embargo, I’d said that print outlets didn’t cite the findings in their stories and that coverage was “limited to the news wires and online press.”

    In no way was that intended as a potshot at the wires — I was thrilled that Reuters covered the research.

    Thanks again for calling attention to this complicated topic.

    Elaine Schmidt

    March 10, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    • Thanks Elaine. And I was just giving you a hard time, it was a reflex given my day job. I knew you didn’t mean it as a potshot.


      March 10, 2010 at 5:26 pm

  2. Ivan–I believe Science does do this several times a year, often to move the embargo up a day early to match a competing paper in Nature so both can get coverage at the same time. One problem is that occasionally the paper may not be ready to be posted online (although a copy can be given to reporters) and it can frustrate people if they hear about a study and then can’t find it on the journal’s website. So there are downsides to jumping your planned embargo date.

    john travis

    March 11, 2010 at 2:15 am

    • Thanks John. Several times a year squares with what I noted Science told me as a guess. I completely see your point about papers being available online, and that was the subject of a post last week.

      Having run two science magazine websites, I guess I’m not sure it takes too much time or effort to make a paper available online once it’s been available (usually linked through EurekAlert anyway) as a PDF. PNAS made it sound as though that was the stumbling block when I asked them about their policy, however. Would love to hear from more journals about that.


      March 11, 2010 at 10:33 am

  3. Interestingly, I asked Science to do this last week too, when Nature had the paper on mass-sequencing of gut bacteria genomes and Science had another interesting paper on gut bacteria and obesity the following day. But on that occasion, I was told no-go on the embargo move request, with no particular explanation.

    On the Utah early release, I think Science is lucky no-one followed up that release early. I don’t think anyone could have fairly been blamed for doing so.

    Mark Henderson

    March 11, 2010 at 4:10 am

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