So who gets access to embargoed studies, anyway?
Last week, a blogger who goes by GrrlScientist applied for access to embargoed materials from EurekAlert!, the the press release clearinghouse run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Within four minutes, she was denied.
GrrlScientist was angry, and in a blog post titled “Goddam, But I Hate Embargoes,” she spewed venom in a number of directions. She called the policy “stupid.” She had some choice words for the mainstream media, too, and wrote that “If a MSM reporter breaks embargo, their organization is almost never ‘punished’ by having their literature access revoked.” I’d have to take issue with that: See this example, this other one, and this third one all since Embargo Watch debuted in late February, and this one from 2007 that I referenced last week. (I should note that she later called this rant “mild by internet/blogosphere standards.”)
A somewhat chastened GrrlScientist later updated her post, reporting that EurekAlert! had taken a careful look at the situation after her post, and granted her access. She later posted another item on the subject.
The episode followed another, involving Science Around The Clock blogger and PLoS One online discussion expert Bora Zivkovic — whom, in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know over the past several years at the great ScienceOnline conferences he co-organizes.
Bora blogged about that incident here. In a nutshell — but you should read his post, and a response from AAAS Office of Public Programs director Ginger Pinholster — there was some confusion over whether Bora should have received pressroom access at February’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting. The confusion stemmed from his position at PLoS, which could have disqualified him as a journal editor. But it sounds as though this was resolved relatively quickly when he explained he was on the communications side of the journal.
This does bring up one interesting nuance: AAAS pressroom eligibility is somewhat different from EurekAlert! eligibility. Public information officers are granted access to the former, but not the latter. Ginger’s explanation — and appropriate characterization of the newsroom criteria as “generous,” in my view:
AAAS traditionally has offered complimentary newsroom credentials to a broad group of career science communicators, including working reporters, producers, editors, and freelancers as well as public information officers for universities and research institutions, journalism professors and journalism students. All career science communicators who are members of the National Association of Science Writers are eligible to receive complimentary press badges at our meeting, one of the most generous standards among science organizations.
A lot of Bora’s frustration was actually about having access to WiFi around the whole conference center for everyone, rather than just in the press room. I can’t argue with the importance of WiFi — I carry around my own Verizon MiFi that I pay for out of pocket — but in her post, Ginger says the costs would have been prohibitive.
Both of these episodes reminded me that my students at New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program — full-time graduate journalism students — can’t have embargoed access to EurekAlert! because they’re not full-time journalists. I checked in with senior communications officer Rahman Culver today to make sure that was still the case. He told me that “EurekAlert! embargoed news access has always been reserved for staff reporters or freelancers working full-time for media organizations.” I admit to being a bit frustrated by what that means for my students.
There’s a lot to chew on here, and I’d love to see all of this dissected in the comments. I know that some version of the title of this post will probably serve as the title of countless posts going forward, looking at different examples. For now, I’m going to focus on a few key points:
- I have always found Ginger and her team remarkably calm, consistent, and considerate whether it’s working with them on Science/AAAS material, or responding to queries for Embargo Watch. Even when I disagree with their determinations, I find them open and responsive.
- The SEC regulations to which Ginger refers — Regulation Fair Disclosure — are actually quite important, not only in their letter but in their spirit. A small but significant number of studies — mostly in the biomedical sciences — have the potential to move stock prices. To oversimplify: Trading on that information before it is public is considered insider trading, and organizations that help people do that can face stiff fines. That’s why the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) changed its conference embargo policy. In something called the ASCO effect, stock prices were mysteriously moving between the time that embargoed press material was released, and the embargo lifted. You can guess why. Adam Feuerstein, whom I profiled here, successfully pressed for changes to prevent that from happening.
- As long as there are embargoes, I don’t have any problem with more people who fit EurekAlert’s criteria getting access. Their criteria seem reasonable to me, as I’ve noted. In other words, bring on the bloggers — and, if I may, the journalism students!
- One quote from GrrlScientist’s blog made me stop and think: “Revoking a blog writer’s literature access is tantamount to killing her.” It made some commenters on her Nature Network blog post on the same subejct think too.) My response would be that if lack of access to embargoed material meant that more bloggers would have to find stories no one else was covering, all the better. That’s not a reason to bar them from embargoed material — my point is to remind bloggers and MSMers alike that relying solely on embargoed studies puts control of what we cover completely into the hands of those who embargo. Even if you only wanted to cover peer-reviewed studies, plenty of high-quality journals don’t embargo.
- At the risk of making this about the virtues and pitfalls of anonymous blogging, I’ll say that I think anonymous bloggers who want access to embargoed material are always going to face an additional level of scrutiny. I don’t have any problem with anonymous blogging. I understand the reasons for it; speaking your mind plainly as GrrlScientist did is certainly one of them. And I understand that an anonymous blogger would apply using a real name. But when you’re asking someone to agree to something, you want to be able to do due diligence as best you can, and anonymity means you always have to wonder what else that person is up to. Again, I’m not accusing anyone of hiding anything. Still, I can’t blame those doing the embargoing for an extra layer of fact-checking.
Enough of my thoughts. By now, I hope many of you are already thinking: “Wait, Ivan, it’s quite easy for you to be sanguine about this. The day someone decides Reuters isn’t eligible for embargoed material is the day we know the media has really died.” Fair enough. The point of this blog is to keep up a conversation about embargoes — so let’s have it.