Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

A follow-up on an unusual embargo policy at the American Thoracic Society

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In one of the first Embargo Watch posts, I wrote about a policy at the American Thoracic Society’s American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. Basically, the press can’t write about papers for two weeks while they’re freely available to any HighWire subscriber. Many hospitals and medical schools subscribe to HighWire, a Stanford University service that many publishers use to make electronic versions of their journals available. I found the policy unusual, as did some who commented on the post.

Still, one potential advantage, you might think, would be that the journal could send out embargoed material a whole two weeks before the embargo lifts. That’s a pretty long embargo window, which would allow reporters to gather outside interviews and context for their stories — one of the most common justifications for embargoes.

So I was surprised when an embargoed press release went out just two days ago about a study that was posted to the AJRCCM site on April 8. The press release went out at 11:19 a.m. Eastern time on April 20, embargoed until a minute past midnight today (Thursday) Eastern time.

To the journal’s credit, they don’t hide the unusual embargo. The release says, clearly:

The findings were published on the American Thoracic Society’s Web site ahead of the print edition of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

It’s not too many embargoed releases that use the past tense, as you’d imagine.

Still, I was curious why the release had gone out so close to the embargo time, instead of on April 8, when the PDF of the study was already available.

ATS science writer and senior media liaison Keely Savoie responded to my query:

As you note, the paper you referenced was available April 8.  April 8th is also the first day I have access to the articles.  I aim to turn releases around within a week, but for a variety of reasons both within and beyond my control I cannot always do that, especially as the conference approaches.  Case in point:  there is another article that was released on April 8 that I cannot yet post the release for, as I am waiting on approval from [an institution in the UK].  It will be released in a day or two without an embargo because we have no choice but to wait on their review.

In the case that you have a special interest in a particular paper, you are always most welcome to contact me for more information.  I will not post a release until the contents are finalized and approved by the author, but before that happens I have contact information and often some background information that may be useful.

We’re all constantly rushing against deadlines, so I told Keely I could empathize. The way this plays out — and the signoff to which Keely alludes — also highlights how many people end up involved in a release. Sometimes, university press information officers get frustrated because journals get to call the shots on timing. Here, it seems that research institutions may be holding things up.

Either way, it means less time for journalists to report, once again throwing into question the idea that embargoes are designed to help produce better journalism.

Updated 4/23/2010, 2:30 p.m. Eastern, removing the name of the UK institution in Keely’s quote at her request. Keely emailed me this morning to say she did not realize I was asking for comment for publication. I had asked one of her colleagues — whom I have quoted before, and knows I’m a reporter — for comment. He asked her to comment on the institution’s behalf, so I have no reason to think it was unclear that I was asking for an on-the-record comment. However, the point was to highlight the number of institutions that need to sign off on releases, not point to a particular institution.

Written by Ivan Oransky

April 22, 2010 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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