Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

The Groundhog Day embargo: An embargo that lifts every hour for a day

with 5 comments

As this post goes live, so will a Reuters Health story. The story is about a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showing that poisonings by prescription drugs — specifically, opioids, sedatives, and tranquilizers — are on the rise. The rates are fairly dramatic.

The study isn’t particularly unusual. What is unusual, however, is the embargo for this paper. See if you can figure out what time it was, based on these clues:

  • If someone in the UK had covered this study — admittedly unlikely, since this was a study of US poisonings — you could have read his or her story five hours ago.
  • If someone at the Los Angeles Times wants to publish a story on this study, he or she had better wait three more hours.
  • Our Reuters Health story does not break any embargoes, but would have five hours ago when someone in the UK could have published one.

Figure it out? I’m sure you have: The embargo is 12:01 a.m. local time April 6. In other words, this embargo lifts 24 different times — actually even more than that, some time zones are set off by a half hour.

It’s the Groundhog Day of embargoes. Or a bit like watching New Year’s Eve celebrations in cities in different time zones.

I contacted the journal Friday to confirm that I was reading the embargo on the press release correctly. The journal’s associate managing editor, Beverly Lytton, told me by email that I was. So in another email, I created a hypothetical:

I’m a bit surprised — that means that theoretically, one of my colleagues in Singapore could post this almost a day ahead of someone on the West Coast. And it would be on the web, which would mean the embargo for a reporter in New York would have been broken.

Beverly responded:

That’s correct. So far it hasn’t been a problem.

Last week, I wrote about the fact that The Lancet has two embargo times: One at midnight GMT for most of the world, and one a half hour earlier, which usually means 6:30 p.m. Eastern, for those of us on the east coast of the U.S. That’s designed so that U.S. broadcasters can report on Lancet studies in their evening newscasts, if they want.

I found that policy puzzling, but the American Journal of Preventive Medicine one has me even more befuddled. How would you police such a thing?

Written by Ivan Oransky

April 6, 2010 at 12:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. Oh, I can see the American Journal of Preventive Medicine’s embargo as very practical.

    Ivan, as you know, telegraph operators keep standard hours, and news moves only as fast as the newsboy can pedal. Do you really expect the Philadelphia Bulletin to wait for the Los Angeles Herald before releasing a breaking study on Preventatives? If those Main Line blue bloods can’t break fast while discovering that deep knee bends will prevent dropsy, I don’t know the point of this new age of faster-than-horse communication.


    April 6, 2010 at 8:38 am

  2. Nice. Another pointless embargo makes the information available to the public before it’s available to the press. Obviously, nothing can stop us from blogging, tweeting, or otherwise citing, the Singaporean coverage.

    Brendan Borrell

    April 6, 2010 at 9:11 am

  3. Reminds me of the latest xkcd.

    Bob O'H

    April 6, 2010 at 10:27 am

  4. I was going to snarkily suggest that this was a belated April Fools prank but given their apparent inability to understand the concept of time, that may not be so far-fetched.

    Ed Yong

    April 6, 2010 at 7:53 pm

  5. Nice. And I agree with EdYo … this was likely an April Fools joke that we’re only getting now because of their complicated embargo policy and strange relationship to time.

    Rebecca Skloot

    July 24, 2010 at 12:45 pm

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