Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

When did scientific embargoes start?

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Edwin E. Slosson, standing at left. Watson Davis is the other man, seated. The women in the 1920s photo are not identified. Source: The Smithsonian Institution http://siarchives.si.edu/findingaids/faru7091.htm

To those of us working in science journalism today, it’s hard to imagine a time without the embargo.  But it may also not be that surprising that the practice, at least for scientific research, appears to only date back to 1920s.

In 1921, with funding from E.W. Scripps, the not-for-profit news agency Science Service was born. Its founding editor, chemist Edwin E. Slosson, “had taught at the University of Wyoming for thirteen years until moving to New York to become the literary editor of The Independent,” according to the description of a collection of Science Service materials now at the Smithsonian.

Science Service, which was later renamed the Society for Science & the Public, publishes Science News and sponsors the Intel Science Talent Search. Those scientists and other advocates for science who bemoan editors’ feelings about science in 2010, and those reporters whom have ever interviewed an apprehensive scientist, may find something familiar in the story of how Science Service began. Civil engineer-turned journalist Watson Davis was one of the first hires in 1921, according to a 1997 Science News 75th anniversary retrospective:

…Slosson told the board that Davis “had worked up by himself a scientific column in the Washington Herald and is remarkably successful in extracting material out of more or less reluctant scientists and getting it into a shape so that it will be taken by more or less reluctant editors.”

Slosson thought the popular press portrayed scientists as either “an enemy of society inventing infernal machines, or as a curious, half-crazy creature talking a jargon of his own and absorbed in pursuit of futilities.” He and Davis worked tirelessly to change this perception, distributing the Science News Bulletin to newspaper clients.

(Another “gee, that sounds familiar” aside in the “should newspapers put up paywalls” debates of 2010: “Scripps had made it clear that the service had to become self-supporting quickly, because ‘no one—and least of all the editor or publisher of a paper—values anything that costs nothing.'”)

As I will in other posts about the history of embargoes, I am relying heavily on Vincent Kiernan’s excellent Embargoed Science, which I recommend to anyone interested in the issue. According to Kiernan, Slosson

…made clear from the very beginning that Science Service planned to arrange for extensive embargoed access to scientific reports. In his discussions with scientists, Slosson repeatedly linked this access to the goal of wider appreciation of science, which he argued both was a social good in itself and would promote wider support for science in U.S. society.

In one such request, of the president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Slosson wrote:

The only way to prevent the misinterpretation of the announcements of a scientific discovery is to have prepared in advance for simultaneous release a popularly written explanation of its meaning and significance.

The service then provided stories to newspapers, all embargoed until a particular day’s morning or evening papers. At the time, news radio was in its infancy, with the first such broadcast taking place in August 1920, and television had not yet been born.

Science Service used their embargo system for the December 1921 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (The fact that the New York Times had access to such material from the 1922 meeting made it possible for Alva Johnson, the paper’s first science editor, to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1923. Try to imagine a Pulitzer for covering an AAAS meeting today.)

The system was mimicked by the American Chemical Society and the American Medical Association, which used embargoes for their conferences. Science Service itself was quite successful. “By the 1940s, Science Service materials appeared in more than 100 newspapers with a combined circulation of over 30 million readers,” according to the 1997 Science News piece.

Somewhere along the way, journal embargoes were also born. Morris Fishbein, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, had led the effort to release embargoed AMA conference presentations to reporters. At some point — details are hazy — the Associated Press’s Howard Blakeslee began visiting AMA headquarters in Chicago each week to go over JAMA page proofs with Fishbein. (Blakeslee is the grandfather of longtime New York Times science writer Sandra Blakeslee.)

It did not take long for Fishbein to use the embargo system to remind another institution how much it needed JAMA. In 1937, when the director of the Massachusetts General Hospital asked his advice on whether to give the Associated Press advance copies of its research papers, he replied:

As editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association I would be inclined to resent release of such publicity in any way except through The Journal, and I believe editors of other publications would be similarly resentful.

Fishbein would turn out to be right, of course; witness the Ingelfinger Rule promulgated by the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine. In future posts, I’ll trace the history of the embargo from the 1930s onward.

Written by Ivan Oransky

March 29, 2010 at 11:00 am

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