Why I think journals and institutions should “name and shame” embargo breakers
Last Thursday, I wrote about a broken embargo on a PLoS One paper on aging genes. Details were sketchy, and they still are. I’m not sure who broke the embargo, nor whether there were any sanctions. PLoS issued some vague information, and did not respond directly to a few emails I sent their press people.
Usually, I find out more when breaks happen. Sometimes journals let me know directly, while other times they send out notes to their press lists. Or they do both. This is the first time since I started Embargo Watch that an institution has called something an embargo break but not said who broke it, nor whether there were any sanctions.
Yesterday, I got an email from Nancy Mendoza, senior media officer at the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which funded the PLoS One research, and had sent out the notice I saw about the break:
We do not have a policy of naming and shaming, but please be assured that we are aware of the source of this embargo break and appropriate action has been taken already.
At BBSRC we take embargos extremely seriously, particularly when publication of original research funded by our organisation is at stake. Thankfully, in our experience, embargo breaks are a rare occurance and we thank our journalist contacts and other recipients of embargoed material from BBSRC for cooperating with the embargo system.
There may be good intentions at work in keeping things confidential. But not knowing the outcome of an embargo break makes it difficult to track the consistency of sanctions, which is one of the things I’m trying to do on Embargo Watch.
I happen to think consistency is important, whether it’s in setting policies that are true to the stated purpose of embargoes, or treating everyone the same way once you ask everyone to agree to an embargo.
An example: When the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter broke a World Health Organization embargo last month, it lost access to WHO embargoed materials for a month. When the New York Times broke a WHO embargo in 2007, it lost access for two weeks. In these cases, I know the sanctions because the WHO announced them. But the organization didn’t respond to my requests for comment about Dagens Nyheter, so I don’t know why the punishments were different.
It’s clear that different news organizations are treated differently. Witness this episode, in which a UK Parliament press officer had told one newspaper to break an embargo to which everyone else had already agreed.
Inconsistencies raise questions about fairness, and not even being able to tell whether there are inconsistencies means a lack of transparency that makes me wonder even more. I think it would be entirely appropriate for embargo agreements to spell out “name and shame” policies, for even more transparency.
But, as always, I’d like to know what Embargo Watch readers think.