College press release breaks PNAS embargo — sort of
Last Thursday, March 25, a science writer got a press release from Royal Veterinary College of the University of London about a study “which revealed the legs of elephants move in a similar way to the wheels of a 4×4 vehicle.” The study sounded familiar, because it was part of the embargoed press packet for the following week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
But the press release didn’t say anything about an embargo, and was in fact dated March 24. So the writer, who was planning on covering the paper when the embargo lifted, fired off an email to PNAS media and communications manager Jonathan Lifland. Hadn’t the embargo been rendered moot by the Royal Veterinary College release?
We’re concerned and more than a little miffed about the press release sent out by the Royal Veterinary College. We have contacted them and requested that they immediately clarify their press information to note the PNAS news embargo lift, which is scheduled to lift at 3 p.m. Eastern Time on Monday, March 29.
While you are correct that the PNAS embargo terms are gravely endangered by the distribution of the RVC release, we would like to maintain the embargo lift time and date if at all possible. Depending on the speed with which they are able to clarify their information and any news coverage that is generated as a result of their release, we are prepared to lift the PNAS embargo on this article if necessary.
In the meantime, at least one writer contacted Royal Veterinary College press officer Jack Melling, who had sent out the release, to check whether he realized the study was still embargoed. Realizing his error, Jack sent this message to his press list:
Please note that yesterday’s press release below and attached about biomechanical research revealing elephants move like a 4×4 vehicle was subject to an embargo set by RVC partners, PNAS, and we would greatly appreciate it if you could hold back until Monday 29th March if you’re interested in the news story.
We apologise for any inconvenience caused.
PNAS kept the embargo on the 29th, and it held, as far as I can tell. A number of outlets covered the study that day and the day after.
So, no harm, no foul, apparently. But the incident reminds me of something that happened several weeks ago, when the University of Utah posted a press release 24 hours before a Science embargo lifted. It was accidental, so the university pulled down the release as quickly as they could and apologized. Science didn’t move their embargo, either.
Both situations highlight the potential difficulty of coordinating an embargo among various institutions. A journal sets an embargo, along with a press release, but universities and funders want to make sure the word gets out, so they also send out releases.
When times and embargoes get mixed up, journals get to decide whether the incidents count as embargo breaks. Based on this very small sample size — as well as this somewhat different example — that decision seems to be based on whether press coverage results, rather than whether the information is freely available. I’ll keep an eye on these cases, and would love to hear about more from Embargo Watch readers.