Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Update on Interphone cell phone-brain tumor study: Embargo lifted

with 2 comments

The International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) has apparently lifted the embargo on the Interphone study, an embargo mess about which I wrote yesterday.

I was forwarded an email saying that the International Journal of Epidemiology, where the study is published, had agreed to lift the embargo early instead of waiting until 1:30 a.m. Paris time tomorrow (7:30 p.m. Eastern today). That email included a link to the IARC’s homepage, which now contains a link to the press release that was previously under embargo.

I didn’t get that email, and neither did at least one other person on the IARC’s press list. Why that’s the case is a bit of a mystery.

Of note, in a post yesterday, Janet Raloff of Science News quoted an email from IARC sent yesterday:

A mid-day email from IARC acknowledged: “Some UK Sunday newspapers have today published stories on the outcome of the Interphone study.” But those stories “do not include details from the embargoed press release or from the manuscript,” according to the head of IARC’s communications office. The news accounts certainly do contain broad-brush characterizations of the findings – as does the MMF release.

I didn’t quote that email yesterday, because it was marked with “confidential” boilerplate. But as long as it’s out there, it’s important to note that it’s not true that the stories did “not include details from the embargoed press release or from the manuscript.” To wit:

A story from The Scotsman included this passage:

Between 2000 and 2004, researchers therefore interviewed tumour sufferers and those in good health – 12,800 in total – to see if their mobile phone use differed.

A release from the Mobile Manufacturers Forum, posted sometime before yesterday morning, said:

…authors make it clear that the data was insufficient for a clear interpretation of possible risk from self-reported heavy use due to a number of possible errors or biases. For example, the paper notes that there is evidence that people diagnosed with a brain tumour over-reported their past mobile phone use and that ‘recall bias-like this may be more likely if subjects perceive that mobile phone use is associated with brain tumours, as has been widely speculated in the media.

Another release, also live since  yesterday, from the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association included a quote from the IARC release:

Dr Christopher Wild, Director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in announcing the INTERPHONE results said:

“An increased risk of brain cancer is not established from the data from interphone. However, observations at the highest level of cumulative mobile phone use since the period studied by interphone, particularly in young people, mean that further investigation of mobile phone use and brain cancer risk is merited.”

This reminds me a bit of the Science hominin embargo break. Here’s what Science said after a few papers, and then a prominent blog, posted an item on the study:

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.

These two cases seem to hinge on the distinction between “story” and “widely disseminated press release.” Now, I obviously understand the difference between the two. But if you’re trying to determine whether you should lift an embargo early so that reporters can describe results fully, form shouldn’t matter. Distribution should.

I’m glad the IARC lifted this early, looks like something like 6:30 a.m. Eastern, according to an update at the bottom of Janet’s post. And it appears they needed to wait until the journal made a decision, based on the email they sent this morning. I just think they should have made that decision yesterday. They haven’t responded to my emails.

Here’s another take on the mess, from The Los Angeles Times‘ Shari Roan.

So we’ll see if there are any sanctions, which as I’ve noted in the past are a separate issue from whether an embargo should be lifted early. And while I’m at it, I am still trying to learn whether there were any sanctions against those who wrote about the Science hominin paper early. Drop me a line if you know.


Written by Ivan Oransky

May 17, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Dear Ivan Oransky,

    maybe you are interested to check http://www.stopumts.nl and http://www.microwavenews.com

    Microwavenews had already announced the article would be in the International Journal of Epidemiology. Stopumts has downloaded the article and published the news about the article on May 15, 2010.

    Microwavenews has revealed that the appendices to the Interphone study were not sent to registered journalists. Though the appendices contain information highly relevant for a news story. You revealed that not all registered journalists did receive the email containing the lift of the embargo.

    A journalist has a responsibility to society. People need to be informed and media always should balance the value of the embargo and the value of the information. A journalist who has embargoed information about an upcoming disaster, a planned crime or else, has to break the embargo. The best and ethical way is to find the same information from other sources.

    Last but not least there is the balance of power. The WHO/IARC is very powerful compared to a journalist. It is questionable if an embargo between the WHO/IARC and a journalist is an agreement between equal gentlemen. The mobile phone industry and the governments are powerful as well and they do not wish to publish any bad news about mobile communications, they have huge interests. Probably the British Sunday papers have decided to publish the bad news before the embargo was lifted for this reason.

    Frans van Velden

    Frans van Velden

    May 18, 2010 at 11:54 am

  2. In addition: Microwavenews reports that the embargoed news did not contain or refer to the appendices and the comment in the Journal. So, the registered journalists thought they had the whole story under embargo – but they did not. WHO/IARC withheld crucial information about the results after correction for bias. WHO/IARC has bamboozled the registered journalists. The real story is: using a mobile phone ten years half an hour a day means a double risk to get glioma (95% between 2,14 and 3,31). WHO/IARC misused the embargo to promote another view, not mentioning the corrected results and the comment in the same issue of the IJE.

    Frans van Velden

    Frans van Velden

    May 18, 2010 at 12:02 pm

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