Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

University of Leeds embargoes a paper that’s already online

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Yesterday, Hannah Isom, of the University of Leeds’ press office, sent out a release embargoed until 6 p.m. GMT (2 p.m. Eastern) today. The release was about a paper in Geophysical Review Letters on how quickly melting icebergs were causing the sea level to rise.

That seemed like a press release-worthy subject. There was only one problem: The paper (subscription required) was already online, listed in the journal’s “in press” table of contents.

I was a bit puzzled by that, so I checked in with Peter Weiss, public information manager at the American Geophysical Union, which publishes Geophysical Review Letters. He wrote:

The paper is in press, so it has been accepted for publication but not yet published. I expect that it will be published in the middle of May.

I don’t know why Leeds has embargoed it. AGU doesn’t embargo its publications.  Once a paper has been accepted, we provide copies to reporters and welcome coverage of the research.

In other words, not only was the paper already online, but it had never been embargoed in the first place, since the AGU doesn’t embargo its journals. So I asked Hannah why she was embargoing a paper that was already online. She responded:

I had prepared a press release for the paper to issue under embargo to coincide with the online publication of this paper. However, the paper published online on Friday before I had chance to issue the release.

I put out the release with an embargo to give me some time to liaise with the lead author and to prepare for any subsequent media activity such as interviews, etc.

I can certainly understand the time pressures, and I appreciate any effort to actually use an embargo for one of its stated aims, namely giving journalists more time to report. But by convention, it’s the journal that gets to decide when something is embargoed, not the home institution — especially when something is already online.

Sometimes, confusion or error leads to an institution sending out a release that fails to mention an embargo, in which case there’s a potential break, or actually posting something public too early. This was something altogether different, and a few people I’ve talked to with lots of experience in embargoes are as puzzled by it as I am. None of them can imagine that this is a legitimate embargo, and neither can I.

You’ll probably notice that this post is going up as the Leeds “embargo” lifts. Partly that’s because by the time I had a chance to write it, I had something ready to go for this morning already. But I’m also going to continue to be very cautious about upholding embargoes — even when I don’t really believe this one is legitimate — since I’m at a large news organization, and can’t just make these decisions without considering the consequences carefully. So go ahead, call me a chicken — I’ve been called worse, probably even today.

Written by Ivan Oransky

April 28, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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