Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

*Assisted fertility-birth abnormalities embargo lifted early after Sunday Times story but “it appears that they are not entirely to blame this time”

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The Sunday Times has broken another embargo, this one of a study on a higher risk of birth abnormalities among babies conceived through assisted fertility treatments. The study is scheduled to be presented tomorrow (Monday) at the European Society of Human Genetics meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden, and was embargoed until a minute after midnight Central European Time Monday. The Sunday Times story, by Jonathan Leake, was posted sometime late Saturday.

However, according to from Mary Rice, who is handling media relations on the study, there’s more to the embargo break. In an email sent to her press list at 5:34 a.m. Eastern today, she wrote:

The 00.01 CEST Monday embargo has been broken on this story, so I am lifting the embargo with immediate effect and you are free to use it straight away.   I am trying to find out what happened; although the break came from the Sunday Times, it appears that they are not entirely to blame this time.    I’ll keep you posted.

I, too, will keep Embargo Watch readers posted as I hear more. Here’s coverage by my Reuters colleague Kate Kelland, posted after the embargo lifted.

Update, 11:30 Eastern, 6/13/10: In an email responding to my request for details, Mary said this “seems to have been a chapter of accidents.”

Apparently on Friday reporters from two UK nationals called the HFEA [UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority] for a comment on the story, which I’d sent out under embargo late on Thursday afternoon.     They didn’t mention that the story was embargoed, and the HFEA didn’t ask.   One of the reporters sent the HFEA the abstract, but not the press release.

Thinking that the findings might be of concern to patients, the HFEA put a short statement on their website.  Jonathan Leake happened to see it and called the HFEA asking for more details.  They referred him to the abstract.   As far as I know he didn’t see the press release so may not have been aware of the embargo.

On reflection, I should probably have sent the release to the HFEA in advance, knowing that they could get requests for comment.   But then I should have sent to all the fertility regulatory authorities worldwide, which would be a complicated logistical exercise with even more scope for an embargo break.  And I would have expected the HFEA to ensure that there was no embargo before making a public statement.

I’ll be sending a note round to my media list about this, and would be interested to know how readers of Embargo Watch think this situation could have been avoided.

Sounds like one of those things that can happen when lots of institutions are putting out their own releases. So what advice would you have for Mary, Embargo Watch readers?

Update, 10:20 a.m. Eastern, 6/15/10: It turns out that this abstract, and others from the ESHG conference, were freely available on the Society’s site. If you went straight to that link, there’s no mention of an embargo. If you got there from the conference program site, you saw this:

Important note for journalists

Abstracts are made available in advance to enable journalists to prepare stories for publication at the time of the conference. All abstracts are STRICTLY embargoed for the date and time of presentation, unless otherwise agreed with the ESHG press officer. Embargo-breaking will result in the withdrawal of media facilities to the individual journalists and to the publications concerned before, during, and after the conference.

My two cents: If you’re going to embargo something, don’t make it freely available. It’s hard to justify an embargo at that point. And if you still insist on making it freely available, with breaks subject to sanctions despite that, make sure the embargo stamp is visible no matter how reporters get to it. That’s what the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, subject of an early Embargo Watch post, does.

*Update, 1:50 p.m. Eastern, 6/15/10: Now that the details of this incident are a bit more clear, I’ve changed the headline to better reflect what happened.


Written by Ivan Oransky

June 13, 2010 at 9:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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One Response

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  1. In an email to me, Natasha Loder makes the point that it is unrealistic to expect people asked for comment to know the embargo status of stories. She suggests specifying on the news release that journalists can only request comment from people who have agreed to abide by the embargo.

    “If you expect the people who are commenting on the science to figure out that it is embargoed, then what happens when journalists contact ordinary scientists? It is the wrong way round. The only way this can work is if you remember to pass the responsibility to the people who are handling the information, i.e. the journalists.”

    I think this is a good suggestion and will add a note to this effect on all future releases. Thanks, Natasha.

    Mary Rice

    June 14, 2010 at 7:45 am

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