Can a journal — Nature — Ingelfinger itself?
Last week, on Twitter, Chris Gunter — who calls herself a “recovering Nature editor” — pointed me in the direction of a few Nature items she thought I would find of interest because of an embargo angle. Konrad Hochedlinger and some of his colleagues had published a paper in Nature about a genetic flaw in reprogrammed stem cells — a flaw that had been reported in a Nature news story several weeks earlier based on a conference presentation at the New York Academy of Sciences.
The fact that Nature published the study even after someone had reported on it seemed like a refreshing interpretation of the Ingelfinger Rule, about which I’ve written before. Basically, the rule, named for the New England Journal of Medicine editor who codified it, says that for a journal to publish a study, its results can’t have appeared elsewhere, with the exception of limited conference presentations.
The appearance of the Hochedlinger paper was refreshing because some reporters have complained bitterly about the Ingelfinger Rule, saying that it stifles communication and makes scientists afraid to speak to reporters. But here was a case in which the journal, which clearly knew about the news story, was happy to publish the study anyway.
Still, I wondered if Nature would still have published the paper if another news outlet had published on this before publication in the journal. And was Hochedlinger’s team still under embargo between March 31, when the Nature story appeared, and April 25?
I checked in with Ruth Francis, head of press for Nature Publishing Group, for the answers. Ruth sent me a link to Nature‘s embargo policy, and highlighted the following passage about communication between scientists:
Nature journals do not wish to hinder communication between scientists. For that reason, different embargo guidelines apply to work that has been discussed at a conference or displayed on a preprint server and picked up by the media as a result. (Neither conference presentations nor posting on recognized preprint servers constitute prior publication.)
Our guidelines for authors and potential authors in such circumstances are clear-cut in principle: communicate with other researchers as much as you wish, whether on a recognised community preprint server, on Nature Precedings, by discussion at scientific meetings (publication of abstracts in conference proceedings is allowed), in an academic thesis, or by online collaborative sites such as wikis; but do not encourage premature publication by discussion with the press (beyond a formal presentation, if at a conference).
Ruth went on:
Nature’s news team are editorially independent and do not receive special treatment. The paper was still under embargo until we published on Sunday. The full data and methodology were not in the public domain and the researchers had not spoken with the press about the work except under embargo conditions in the week before publication.
The relationship between the news sections of journals that report routinely on the studies appearing in those journals — I’m thinking mostly of Nature and Science — is worth watching. There’s a significant potential conflict of interest there, although not one that can’t be managed.
Everything that happened in this case, however, seems reasonable to me, particularly given that the March 23 New York Academy of Sciences presentation was open to the public. Anyone could have reported on it starting on March 23, and Nature‘s story didn’t appear until March 31.