Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Why I think journals and institutions should “name and shame” embargo breakers

with 4 comments

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.

Written by Ivan Oransky

April 7, 2010 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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4 Responses

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  1. It’s not just transparency. Naming people is about meting out punishment, establishing a track record and giving the “shamed” a chance to explain what the heck happened (and how it can be prevented in the future).

    No journal, no PR person in their right mind is going to give Jonathan Leake access to embargoed information, precisely because he has a rep for being an embargo outlaw. I would love to know who the other Leake-types are out there.

    Does this mean some people who make innocent mistakes will get called out? Sure. And I’d be willing to bet that the public scrutiny would go a lot further in deterring those folks from repeating those mistakes than unknown bans of unknown duration.

    Brian Reid

    April 7, 2010 at 11:55 am

    • It’s bizarre to see the rapidly dwindling number of science journalists fighting among themselves over how best to publicly damage each others’ credibility and reputation. Why not accept that the embargo system is not some kind of absolute set of rules but rather a slightly ramshackle set of guidelines? Sometimes it gets exploited by PR people and other times by journalists but generally it works quite well for most people.

      In particular, this kind of obsessing over a few minutes or hours on am embargo break is for people with not enough work on their hands – or who are relying too much on being spoon-fed with embargoed material in the first place. (After all, let’s face it’ most of the ‘stories’ put out under embargo are pretty boring anyway. It’s a tiny minority that get anywhere)

      It’s be far healthier and probably more lucrative to break the addiction to embargoed stories, stop obsesing about discussions like this, and go out and get some real ones.

      • 1) “Why not accept that the embargo system is not some kind of absolute set of rules but rather a slightly ramshackle set of guidelines?”

        If they were guidelines, there would be no sanctions for breaking them. But there are.

        2) “In particular, this kind of obsessing over a few minutes or hours on am embargo break is for people with not enough work on their hands”

        We wouldn’t give a toss if the system didn’t exist. But a few hours or minutes makes a HUGE difference in terms of the numbers of people that read a piece. I reckon an editor could add to their readership by releasing embargoed news stories 10 mins prior to the embargo on a regular basis. Wonder if anyone would notice?

        3) “It’s be far healthier and probably more lucrative to break the addiction to embargoed stories, stop obsesing about discussions like this, and go out and get some real ones.”

        Oh so true. Problem is when reporters do that, scientists sometimes refuse to talk to them (at conferences, on the phone) because their work is either not sent to a journal yet, about to be sent, under consideration or about to be published and so is…. under embargo

        uknowzipabout ournalism

        May 28, 2010 at 6:51 am

  2. I bet that if embargo breakers were “named and shamed” a surprising number of the names would shame the journal, not the embargo breaker.

    My bet is that a lot of the sanctions meted out are to reporters who made a simple mistake, released a story early because of a technical glitch, or had a valid journalistic reason to break the embargo. I would actually flip this,and say that in order to impose sanctions, the journal should have to make a public justification of why they are imposing the sanctions, and that the responsible journalist should be allowed to affix a response.

    Matthew Herper

    April 7, 2010 at 2:24 pm


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