Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

So who gets access to embargoed studies, anyway?

with 17 comments

Photo by B I R D via flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/greatwork/

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.

Written by Ivan Oransky

March 22, 2010 at 12:28 pm

17 Responses

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  1. I’m sympathetic to GrrlScientist’s plight. I don’t buy the notion that anonymous/pseudonymous bloggers deserve any extra scrutiny. Their record is available for anyone to see. If you provide embargoed access to such a blogger, it’s just as easy to ban them for breaking embargo as anyone else.

    That said, I had a pretty popular blog (Cognitive Daily) for five years and I don’t think I ever reported on an embargoed paper. As you point out, there’s plenty of great, non-embargoed science out there.

    davemunger

    March 22, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    • Appreciate the comment, Dave, and I agree that it’s just as easy to ban them. My point wasn’t about punishment though; it was about being able to do due diligence on what other affiliations and work the applicant is doing before you decide whether they’re eligible. That’s much more straightforward when you Google or otherwise check Ivan Oransky or Dave Munger than it is for an anonymous blogger. But again, that doesn’t mean I don’t think they should have access; quite the contrary.

      ivanoransky

      March 22, 2010 at 12:48 pm

      • Actually, it’s easy to Google GrrlScientist. She’s a very well-known and well-regarded blogger. Arguably she has much more of a record than Joe Freelancer for the Paducah Sun, who may or may not have the expertise to even understand the science he’s reporting on.

        But of course not every blogger is as respected or prolific as GrrlScientist, so it’s reasonable to ask where lines should be drawn. I’m just not sure that EurekAlert has picked the right place.

        Dave Munger

        March 22, 2010 at 2:26 pm

      • Thanks Dave. I’m not sure they have either, which is why I want to foster discussion here. I don’t think we’re that far apart, but it looks as though I’ve failed to make myself clear again.

        To wit: This isn’t about finding other writing by a blogger online. And it certainly wasn’t a way to question whether GrrlScientist had a track record, nor whether she should have access to embargoed material. It’s about finding other jobs bloggers may have, boards they may sit on, etc. that would disqualify them. As I mentioned, I know that people would apply using their real names. But there’s a lack of transparency to anonymous blogging that, while not making that blogging any less valuable, means I think an extra level of scrutiny is fair. If you’re using a pseudonym in a very public place, who’s to know what else isn’t tied to your name? That’s what I meant. I agree with GrrlScientist’s comment below that it shouldn’t be required once the embargoing party has answered the usual questions, but before that point it could be useful.

        As far as scientific expertise, that isn’t one of EurekAlert’s criteria, nor is it a criterion anywhere else, as far as I know. It sounds as though you and GrrlScientist are suggesting it should be; happy to have that discussion too, although there I suspect we’d differ quite a lot.

        ivanoransky

        March 22, 2010 at 2:44 pm

      • If you’re using a pseudonym in a very public place, who’s to know what else isn’t tied to your name?

        I see where you’re coming from, and I understand that this may not be your opinion but rather the reasoning given by a publisher, but couldn’t the reverse also be true? If you’re using your real name in a public space, who’s to know what else you’re saying under a pseudonym?

        You’re right that certain potential conflicts of interest could come to light when real names are being used, but I wonder how often publishers actually use this information to vet potential additions to their distribution lists. Why would a conflict of interest matter in this case? Wouldn’t the important question be how the outlet handles embargoed material? Arguably a blogger with hundreds of posts, pseudonymous or not, would be easier to vet than a freelancer with publications scattered across an array of sites.

        That said, in a large organization, it may be difficult to come up with a coherent-sounding policy that encompasses all possible cases.

        Unfortunately for publishers, in a world with fewer and fewer traditional outlets for their work, they may need to figure out some way to get the message out to a broader audience, and bloggers are a very important way the message is getting out.

        [Important disclaimer: I run a website that collects blog posts about peer-reviewed research]

        davemunger

        March 22, 2010 at 4:47 pm

  2. The way AAAS evaluates EurekAlert! applications has always mystified me. They seem very stingy about adding anyone new to the list, but do they ever revoke the accounts of “inactive” journalists? Not very often, I’d wager.

    At my publication the news editor often has to assign embargoed stories to other writers… including me, back when I was an intern. But after I was hired as a full time editor (and was regularly writing online news stories) I decided I should apply for my own account. I was turned down even though I seemingly met all their published requirements.

    I haven’t bothered reapplying, because if anything I felt that signing up on my own was a favor to AAAS, because they’d get to add me to their database. I still know about the embargoed stories anyway, but I’m happy that they’re not clogging my inbox.

    Also, what exactly is the rationale for excluding students? Are they just trying to minimize the expansion of the distribution list? If you’re worried about too big of a list, I’d suggest auditing the one you already have. Of course, it’s quicker to deny a new application than determine whether an existing member is still a “staff reporter or freelancer working full-time for media organizations”

    Josh Romero

    March 22, 2010 at 1:07 pm

  3. Nice roundup, Ivan.

    I know a journalism student (now graduated) who wanted to start pitching to science media outlets, but couldn’t get embargoed access which, as you pointed out, is the norm. So he was at a rather large disadvantage trying to get started.

    His solution:
    Borrow a journalist friend’s login credentials until he could get his own (nope, not my own :D). Ethical or procedural concerns aside, he successfully pitched and wrote a few stories, then got embargoed access as a freelancer with those clips.

    Moral of the story: Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

    Dave Mosher

    March 22, 2010 at 1:25 pm

  4. thanks for your thoughts on this issue, ivan. i was unaware that journalism graduate students are unable to access embargoed science/medical materials, and i think this is an insult to educating effective science and medical research communicators. certainly your students deserve EurekAlert! access even before i do, at least on a “provisional” basis (described here) or maybe a short-term basis that respects and supports their status as nascent journalists. semester-long access can easily be programmed into a computer database.

    i also wonder if E! revokes access once a journalist has gotten it? does anyone know?

    on one hand, i WAS lucky: i did get E! access. i was invited to apply for it by my contact at SCIENCE, so i had help with this. but on the other hand, i am a scientist (who happens to be unemployed). i am NOT a journalist nor am i paid to write about science (except for the paltry sum i get via total “clicks”), so i am not a “full-time freelancer,” either. really, there is no E! category that fits what i do.

    but as you note, ivan, i did use my real-life name and contact information to apply for E! access, and i also made telephone contact with ginger pinholzer (on my dime during business hours from germany where i now live) and then answered abigail’s additional questions that are required by SEC laws. but i don’t think additional scrutiny beyond that is necessary for a pseudonymous blog writer. especially in view of the fact that i have written my blog (and commented widely throughout the blogosphere) under the same pseudonym for almost six years. at this point, my pseud is better known and more respected than i am.

    to be clear, i do not always write about embargoed material as a look here will reveal, however, as an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist, a few papers that are part of what i write about regularly do end up embargoed, which leads to all sorts of complications when i try to write about them in a timely way.

    GrrlScientist

    March 22, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    • Many thanks for sharing your story and responding, GrrlScientist. I’m glad this has sparked a conversation here, at your blog, and elsewhere.

      To respond to your specific question, EurekAlert has definitely revoked journalists’ access before; here’s one example:

      http://absw.blogspot.com/2009/01/ginger-pinholster-replies.html

      ivanoransky

      March 22, 2010 at 2:57 pm

      • i should rephrase my question: do ex-journalists (or unemployed journalists!) lose E! access? if so, what period of time must elapse before they do lose E! access? what happens if a science/medical journalist wishes to remain in the field, but has not found employment in their field after that E! access period of time has elapsed? it seems, in this era of massive downsizing by the print media, that this is not a trivial concern.

        GrrlScientist

        March 22, 2010 at 3:11 pm

      • In answer to GrrlScientist’s question, I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of ex or unemployed journalists *never* lose embargoed access to E!, and for one very good reason:

        It’s likely that no one at AAAS is assigned the tedious job of periodically combing their list of journalists with access, and inquiring, one by one, whether they’re still employed, and by whom. If anyone ever does lose E! access, it’s probably because someone at AAAS learns of his/her change in status purely by accident.

        finnfamily

        March 22, 2010 at 5:11 pm

      • Here’s what senior communications officer Rahman Culver said in response to an email from me re: GrrlScientist’s question about ex/unemployed journalists losing access:

        “EurekAlert! does administer periodic reviews of the users who have access to embargoed content on our Web site. The primary goal of these reviews is to monitor whether registrants continue to meet our eligibility criteria over time.”

        ivanoransky

        March 23, 2010 at 3:06 pm

  5. GrrlScientist, regarding your embargoed access and ex-journalist question… excellent question.

    I think you’ve chiseled down to the real issue on this post: What makes a journalist a journalist, and when/under what circumstances does that property magically appear or expire?

    In my opinion, this is a subject worthy entirely of its own blog (much like embargo watch is filling a much-needed hole on the “embargo question”). Feel free to direct me if such a blog already exists!

    dmosher

    March 22, 2010 at 3:20 pm

  6. Interesting post. Particularity relevant to me, since I’m also trying to get embargo access right now. I’m a PhD student trying to get a writing internship, but have been told I need more news-type clips. To apply for E! embargo access as a freelancer, you need 3 clips within the last 6 months. Since I’m writing my thesis, I haven’t been freelancing so much, but I do have exactly 3 clips. However, only 2 are published since one place has been sitting on my article, and won’t publish it until early May! So I guess I have to try to write something else right quick. But without embargo access, it’s very difficult to pitch news anywhere, as Dave Mosher mentioned above. Catch-22, anyone?

    Re: student access to embargoed stuff. I was a AAAS mass media fellow in 2008, so by AAAS rules I was eligible for embargo through my internship newspaper office. But once that was over, I asked about keeping access, since I was also a science columnist for my university paper. Unfortunately I don’t still have that email from E! so I don’t have the exact wording, but was essentially told that school papers don’t qualify because students aren’t trusted to keep embargos. Nice, eh?

    Leigh Krietsch Boerner

    March 23, 2010 at 4:43 pm

  7. I’ve applied for access to embargoed materials from EurekAlert! twice, and both times was denied because I work for an advocacy organization (The Planetary Society) and not a media organization (despite the fact that one of our main activities is to produce Web and print media). I suppose I would also be disqualified because I’m not full-time — I work only part-time because I have young children. Do other applicants really fail to receive EurekAlert! access if they have a flexible work arrangement? That would seem to be pretty discriminatory.

    Emily Lakdawalla

    March 23, 2010 at 5:39 pm

  8. Does AAAS check where you log in to Eurekalert from? Are there any cases of shared passwords being revoked?

    Eskimo

    March 23, 2010 at 6:03 pm

  9. […] asking whether this is an embargo issue, well, strictly speaking, perhaps not. But it’s an access issue, and to me those are quite related. Apologies for the length, but I thought it was important to get […]


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