Now it can be told: My take on the Science hominin “missing link” study embargo
The thoughts in this post have been rattling around my Homo sapiens skull for more than four days, so brace yourself. This may end up reading as though a pipe just burst in your basement.
As this goes live, so do dozens, if not hundreds, of stories about Australopithecus sediba, “a new species of australopith found at the Malapa site in South Africa,” according to Science, where two studies about the new find are published.
I will leave the analysis of the studies themselves to bloggers and others who actually know something about anthropology. I’ve been led to believe this is an important finding, even if “missing link” is as usual a complete misnomer. (Unless my eyes or my text finder are completely off, that phrase appears nowhere in the studies, nor in the other material provided for the press.) The scientifically curious part of my mind looks forward to learning more about it.
Right now, what I’m more interested in is the circumstances surrounding the study’s embargo. Let’s review what happened.
Last week, the US National Science Foundation issued a press release:
GEOLOGISTS UNCOVER MAJOR ANCIENT HUMAN ANCESTOR IN SOUTH AFRICA
Fossil hominid skeletons date to nearly two million years ago
The release noted that two studies about the newly found skeletons would be published in Science on Friday (tomorrow), embargoed until 10 a.m. Eastern Thursday (today) — four hours earlier than the journal’s usual embargo time.
On Saturday, at 4 p.m. British Standard Time, nearly five days before the embargo was scheduled to lift, the Sunday Telegraph published a story about the finds, including a note about a Thursday announcement. They did not mention Science, but they did mention, and quote, the lead researcher, Lee Berger, of the University of the Witwatersrand.
Within a few hours, well-respected anthropology blogger John Hawks posted an item quoting the Telegraph story, and saying that he had “heard that the description will be published in Science.” The Sunday Times followed with an item of their own shortly thereafter, not mentioning Science.
I got a lot of notes from people about this, starting with one Saturday night whose subject line included “EMBARGO BREAK.” Everyone, and I mean everyone, knew this was about the paper being published in Science.
What was curious, though, was that the paper hadn’t even been uploaded to the press site yet. That didn’t happen until Sunday, the usual day, albeit a few hours early. When it did, this note was included:
SPECIAL NOTE: Registered reporters, it is acknowledged that several media outlets have run “teaser” type stories based on portions of information related to fossil research described more fully and accurately in this press package. The teaser articles, appearing prior to the release of the Science Press Package, unfortunately may in some cases over-state the forthcoming research, and thus are a disservice to the goal of communicating science accurately, thereby promoting public trust in the integrity of science. These articles do not reference Science, however, and are not based upon the peer-reviewed version of this research. The Science embargo, detailed below, remains in effect. The SciPak team wishes to commend all journalists concerned with the accurate communication of research news.
Let’s parse that, shall we?
If the goal is to communicate the science accurately, and there’s a lot of allegedly inaccurate coverage floating around out there about a study that is already peer-reviewed and proofed, and available in PDF form to reporters, can someone please explain why the best thing to do is to wait until Thursday to release the actual study? And in the meantime, letting everyone know that breaking that embargo in order to communicate the science accurately would lead to sanctions, just like any other embargo break?
All of this while acknowledging that the work is based on portions of the research being published in Science, and getting it wrong about whether any mentioned Science. (Since Sunday, a few other outlets have run stories on the find, and some blogs, including the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, mentioned Science prominently. I’ll be on the lookout for any sanctions against those organizations, if they’re on the Science press list.)
I can imagine this was not the most peaceful Easter Sunday ever for the Science press office. I wouldn’t like being forced to make a decision by people who seem to be violating everyone else’s agreement, either. And there were a lot of moving parts involved: at least two news conferences, about a dozen items such as the study and background materials, and an author and journal separated by six time zones, to start. (The package includes a great news story, which runs with a smiling picture of Lee Berger’s 9-year-old son, Matthew, and includes this gem: “Matthew was originally included as a co-author on one of the papers, but Science’s reviewers nixed that idea, Berger says.”)
It would be understandable if Science decided Easter Sunday was not a good time to lift an embargo early, and had instead sent out a note saying they would release the study Monday morning, in whatever time zone they chose. But they didn’t.
It’s worth noting that lifting an embargo and punishing the breakers are two separate things that can operate independently from one another. It might take time to figure out what The Telegraph knew, and when they knew it. It shouldn’t be hard to connect the dots between an NSF press release and the story, if that’s what happened, but that will require effort. Fine — it would be understandable if Science decided to lift the embargo before they had time to figure out whether to sanction the embargo breakers. Science has used a panel of reporter-advisors for similar tasks in the past.
But if waiting for an adjudication on that was part of the delay in lifting the embargo, I’m not on board. The fact is, everyone who had agreed to the embargo — including me — was sitting on their hands. Whether or not the people who broke the embargo had access to the embargoed material, and therefore broke it, is relevant to the decision about how to sanction them. It is not relevant, despite the careful language of the Special Notice, to whether the embargo was broken. It was.
I very much doubt that an institution embargoing something in another sphere of life would have been allowed to get away with leaving the embargo up for five days after such a break. “Hey, the Gazette is reporting that the chair’s report will call for Smith’s resignation.” “But we have the report, it says no such thing, just says he used poor judgment.” “Well, it’s embargoed until Thursday, so we’ll have to wait.” Inconceivable.
Put another way: Saying that leaving the embargo in place is in the interests of more accurate science communication is like saying a four-hour embargo “gives the media time to learn about a topic, gather relevant information, and interview authors and other experts so they can accurately report complex research findings” — which The New England Journal of Medicine essentially did last month.
The embargo break did not come up on a conference call for reporters yesterday which involved study authors Lee Berger and Paul Dirks, and Science/AAAS senior communications officer Natasha Pinol — in other words, neither Science, the authors, nor reporters who’d been sitting on their hands, brought it up. The closest anyone came was a question from Alan Boyle of MSNBC about whether the use of the term “missing link” was appropriate. “I don’t like the use of that term,” Lee said, “because i think it’s a Victorian term that implies some chain of evolution, and it’s very difficult to establish one species from another.”
I of course contacted AAAS Office of Public Programs director Ginger Pinholster for comment, starting with an email Sunday. It was an understandably hectic week, and Ginger said she’d get back to me. I’m sure she will, since, as I’ve noted, she’s always been responsive to questions.
In the meantime, though, I just had to post my thoughts.
Allow me to do an edit on this sentence from the Special Notice: “The SciPak team wishes to commend all journalists concerned with the accurate communication of research news.”
My interpretation: “The SciPak team wishes to hobble all journalists concerned with the accurate communication of research news.”
For what purpose? Control. I’ve said before, self-interest is a perfectly reasonable human motivation. And if journals were more honest about that in their embargo policies, I’d have a lot less to write about. But when they use better science communication, and better journalism, as the rationale for their policies, I’m going to call them on it.
Updated 1:08 p.m. Eastern, 4/8/10: As The Sunday Telegraph’s Richard Gray — please see the comments he emailed me below — notes, his story did not quote Lee Berger. I’ve struck that above. Please also see thoughtful response from Ginger Pinholster below.