Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

The Sunday Times’ Jonathan Leake responds to PNAS

with 7 comments

As Embargo Watch readers know, PNAS and the Archives of  Internal Medicine have accused The Sunday Times‘ Jonathan Leake of two separate embargo breaks in the past two weeks. This morning, Jonathan forwarded me a response he sent to PNAS.

In his note to me, Jonathan wrote:

As you can see, these press officers have claimed they have banned us from their embargo system but this is rather misleading because we have a policy of not signing up to these embargo systems. Since we are not part of them we can hardly be banned. The press officers in question do know our position and I would suggest their statements are knowingly misleading.

Here’s the note he sent PNAS:


I have seen some comments attributed to you on blogsites suggesting that The Sunday Times has been blocked from receiving embargoed advance copies of PNAS research papers.

I think this follows our article about the evolution of polar bears in the paper on Sunday.

This is just to say that I have not subscribed to the PNAS embargo system, or any other kind of embargo system, for something close to a decade so it would be wrong to suggest we have breached it or to suggest that any kind of ban has been imposed.

Additionally, our report on Sunday did not draw upon your research paper at all. I did, of course, know that the PNAS paper was coming out but found there was a raft of earlier research which drew much the same conclusions from similar material. That research, all in the public domain, was what we cited. Here are some of the links we used.






We also said that there was new research (yours) due out shortly but did not give details.

There is a long tradition in all areas of journalism of covering reports in advance of their formal publication, usually without giving exact details of their contents. There seems no reason why science papers should be exempt from this, especially when they are covering much the same ground as previous reports.

I did think the study was fascinating and I am glad our report did help generate significant coverage for it.  I am sorry if it inconvenienced you.


Jonathan Leake

PNAS‘ Jonathan Lifland says he responded to the note, and considers the matter closed.

For me, two issues:

One, as Jonathan Leake notes, it’s impossible to ban someone from an embargo list if they were never on it in the first place.

Two is one that’s less clear-cut: Would this be considered an embargo break if it hadn’t happened the day before the embargo was scheduled to lift?

Written by Ivan Oransky

March 12, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

7 Responses

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  1. Very interesting.

    I’m wondering about Jonathan Lifland’s reply. Did he provide any details? Was PNAS sending their list of embargoed stories to the Sunday Times even though Jonathan Leake explicity abjures embargoes? If so, the leak is PNAS’s own fault.

    On the other hand, if the Sunday Times signed up for PNAS’s embargoed story list without mentioning that they don’t respect embargoes, the paper is guilty of misrepresentation.

    On the third hand, if a third party let Jonathan Leake know about the upcoming paper, and if Leake then developed the story from other sources, that’s called enterprise reporting, and it should be encouraged.

    Bob Finn

    March 12, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    • Jonathan Lifland said he had no comments on Jonathan Leake’s claims.


      March 12, 2010 at 2:47 pm

  2. If the journalist got the story without access to embargoed info, then it’s all fair game in my opinion. His notes should be able to identify where he got his information – and in this case they seem to show quite clearly that he obtained it independently.

    I am an editor at the journal Nature, in the interests of full disclosure. My comment isn’t made on behalf of Nature, though, it’s what I think.


    March 12, 2010 at 1:03 pm

  3. What interests me most here is the journalistic honesty of this all. Let’s accept that Jonathan Leake stayed within the letter of the embargo law.

    He wrote a newspaper article based largely on one study published 15 months ago in a journal called “Polar Research” (which is probably a very fine journal, but not one known for setting international science trends) and one published more than *13 years ago* in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution (also probably a very fine journal, but not one that haunts the dreams of post-docs). In his piece, Leake fails to mention either publication names or the publication dates.

    Dredging up decade-old articles may be a clever way to skirt embargoes, but it’s a colossal distortion of what most people think of as “news.”

    Brian Reid

    March 12, 2010 at 2:42 pm

  4. It seems like Leake is trying to have his cake and eat it too: He gets story ideas based on embargoed press releases, while he circumvents those same embargoes by finding alternative sources with similar information. This practice may upset certain journals, but it still lets them dictate what’s news.

    Ewen Callaway

    March 12, 2010 at 5:46 pm

  5. Nonsense. Leake is saying that HE did not sign up for the embargo list, not the Sunday Times. PNAS should remove all Murdoch media in retaliation.

    Eli Rabett

    March 15, 2010 at 8:21 am

  6. That letter spells out his position very unambiguously; that he considers himself above the rules, he willingly broke them (the spirit if not the letter) and he’ll gladly do it again next chance he gets. When gentlemanly conduct goes out of the window like that (as is unfortunately the routine within the British press), it’s difficult to know what can be done about it.

    In situations like this, the system is clearly benefiting the rule-breaking journalists at the expense of the rule-abiding ones and ultimately, the impact of the work is lessened from the resultant staggered publicity. I fear the whole system will need a rethink soon because if this gets worse, there will be no incentive for anyone to play fair.


    March 15, 2010 at 3:25 pm

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