Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Menopause study embargo lifted early after Sunday Times story, but Jonathan Leake notes abstracts were freely available

with 6 comments

Ah, vacation. That protected time when you don’t check your email or voicemail, and you don’t blog. Well, I kept to that last bit, anyway, while traipsing around Turkey and trying unsuccessfully to avoid Turkish Viagra.

But embargo news doesn’t stop in its tracks just because Embargo Watch is on vacation. In the next few days, I’ll use posts to catch up on that news.

First up: On Sunday, European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) press officer Emma Mason sent out the following message:

We have lifted the embargo on the press release and abstract about predicting the menopause. The research by Dr Fahimeh Ramezani Tehrani was embargoed to 00.01 hrs CEST on Monday 27 June and it is due to be presented at European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) annual conference in Rome on Monday. However, Jonathan Leake at the Sunday Times (again!) has broken the embargo and run the story today.

The Sunday Times is already barred from all our media databases and from the ESHRE website, so there is little further action that we can take against Jonathan Leake and his paper. We will, however, be informing Eurekalert and Alphagalileo of his actions.

With this sounding a lot like what happened on another Sunday, with another conference, the European Society of Human Genetics (ESHG), I asked Emma for more details. Embargo Watch readers may remember that in that case, the abstract was freely available on the ESHG’s site, and could be reached without going through a page noting the embargo. Emma’s response:

ESHRE is controlling access to the abstracts on its website by requiring a log-in. All delegates have a log-in and it’s being given to journalists on request (so NOT to Jonathan Leake and co.). Jonathan is only quoting from the abstract, not the press release, so it looks as if our efforts to keep the press release out of the clutches of the Sunday Times did work, but we were less successful in preventing him getting hold of the abstract. The abstract, of course, contains fewer and older data than the press release.

I asked Jonathan for comment. He responded:

This story came from the scientific abstracts posted on the Eshre website. These were freely available at least until a week ago. I read through all the abstracts and picked the ones that I thought would make interesting stories. None of them appeared to have any embargo notices and all were, in any case, completely available for anyone to read.

Jonathan also pointed out a story the Sunday Times ran last week, “Cancer boys given hope of fatherhood,” which was “buried at the back of the news section and so got little attention.” He went on:

This week I ran the story about predicting the menopause, again using nothing but the scientific abstract which I have attached. This was our only source, along with interviews from independent experts. I did look again at the Eshre website again and there now appears to be a login and password system but this was not in place last week.

Emma “has made no attempt to contact me to find out where this story came from,” Jonathan wrote.

If she had I would have told her that it came from simply reading ESHRE’s publicly available science programme and was nothing to do with reading Alphagalileo or Eurekalert. Her press release is lazy, deceitful and unprofessional. All she had to do was email me to check – and she didn’t even do that.

I have found this is fairly normal for PR officers – whenever we publish something they feel has broken an embargo they send out condemnatory press releases without ever calling me to ask what happened or what our real source was.

This of course begs the question of why, given the inability of press officers like Mason to check simple facts, we ever trust their press releases in the first place. But asking that question would put the whole edifice at risk.

Jonathan also sent me some general thoughts on scientific embargoes, which I thought were important enough to merit their own post. I asked Emma to respond to the parts about ESHRE:

Jonathan Leake has contacted me to say that the abstracts for the ESHRE conference were freely available on their website for a few days. This should not have happened; they should have been password-protected from the beginning. I regret that this happened. However, given his experience, Mr. Leake should know that abstracts from the ESHRE conference are embargoed until the date and time of publication. The media policy as stated on the conference website says:

“Abstracts are published in a special supplement to the ESHRE journal Human Reproduction ‘Abstract Book’, which will be available during the congress in print. Abstracts will also be available on the ESHRE website. Information contained in abstracts may not be released and made public until the date and time of the sessions when the abstracts are presented to the congress.

“Embargoes for abstracts lift at the time of presentation to the meeting, unless otherwise stated. News releases from presentations at the conference are embargoed until the date and time of presentation or the official ESHRE news conference, whichever is earlier.”

I think this embargo policy is easy to understand and is in a prominent place on the conference website where it is hard to miss.

My take? This feels like deja vu all over again: The ESHG, the American Diabetes Association (ADA), and now ESHRE are all asking journalists to live by embargoes of material that is already freely available to the public, whether that availability was intentional or not. As I’ve said before, that’s really not a defensible position. Either embargo it and don’t let anyone see it before the embargo lifts, or don’t embargo it. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) learned that several years ago, and made a change. That’s the big-picture stuff, and based on a note I got from the ADA’s press office last week (scroll to update here), others may also be changing their policies to make more sense.

In this specific case, there is also the issue of whether naming and shaming Jonathan and the Sunday Times was appropriate. I don’t have a problem with lifting an embargo early when something enters the public domain; in fact I encourage that. So Emma was right to lift this one, and send out a memo to reporters. It’s even fine to say it was the Sunday Times that had already run a story. But I don’t think I would have said Jonathan had “broken the embargo” before checking what had happened. At the very least, something to the effect of what Mary Rice, who handled ESHG press, wrote in her memo a few weeks ago would have been good:

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 gathered some comments from Emma and Jonathan on this Sunday — and should note that they are both always very responsive, no matter what my take — but keeping to the Embargo Watch embargo meant that others posted first. The more the merrier when it comes to blog posts about embargoes, I say. The Economist’s Natasha Loder, in her personal blog Overmatter, pulls no punches, and asks Emma to apologize to Leake. Natasha notes that the story has echoes of last year’s “life on Mars” incident in which AAAS/EurekAlert! accused The Sun‘s Paul Sutherland of breaking an embargo, then rescinded their 6-month ban. Gimpyblog also posted an item on the issue, with a different take.

Written by Ivan Oransky

June 30, 2010 at 9:15 am

6 Responses

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  1. Spot on Ivan. If its on the web, it is published. End of story. In fact, insisting that journalists in your embargo system not write about stuff you’ve actually already published makes those journalists look really, really, really bad. The embargo only makes sense when you, er, embargo the information.

    Natasha Loder

    June 30, 2010 at 7:39 pm

  2. I work with Emma on the ESHRE conference. It appears on further investigation that there was a technical mistake that allowed abstracts to be freely available on the website for a few days. During this period Jonathan found them and wrote the menopause story.

    However, there were hundreds of abstracts on the site and it seems unlikely that, out of all of them, he chose to run this story without being aware that it was our Sunday for Monday. I’d be interested to hear whether he chose it in order to scoop the dailies or on news value. It would surprise me if it were the latter since, in my view, it was not the best story from the conference.

    So all this stuff about good-fashioned journalistic values doesn’t really stand up, does it? Sunday newspapers have far more time to search out good stories than do the dailies. Some of them used to come to the ESHRE conference and would still find plenty of good stuff for the following week. The abstract book is a gold mine and the dailies can’t possibly cover everything, particularly those stories which need more in-depth research. As someone said on another blog, if I were the Sunday Times news editor I might be a little unhappy about paying a week’s wage for someone to rewrite an abstract and obtain one outside comment on it.

    I am surprised that none of the dailies have come to Emma’s defence, at least in public. After she sent out the email (not a press release) to her list she received very many supportive replies, some suggesting that draconian sanctions should be taken against all News International Group publications because of consistent embargo-breaking by the Sunday Times. If it were just this one occasion, where it is possible to argue that no embargo was broken (though in my view this is disingenuous), then perhaps Emma’s email was couched in too strong terms – though, given the circumstances, I think it’s completely understandable that she said what she did. But we all know that the ST encourages its reporters to break embargoes where ever possible, and Emma should not be made into a pariah and left to deal with this on her own.

    I’m travelling today so a lack of response to any further comments does not indicate disinterest.

    Mary Rice

    July 1, 2010 at 3:32 am

  3. OK, I’ll say this again, v e r y s l o w l y …

    you cannot embargo public information.

    All the messages of support you say you have received will have been from journalists who did not realise at that time of sending their emails that you’d published the information that they’d been sitting on. They took it at face value that what you said was true… that Jonathan broke a promise not to publish.

    In fact, now that everyone has read Greenslade’s blog they know that Jonathan merely picked the stuff off your website.

    You have put all of the journalists who sat on this information in a really difficult situation with their news editors–because they have to explain why they didn’t notice the abstract and publish the story as well.

    All this stuff about Jonathan’s track record is irrelevant. As for your comment about him picking this one abstract, wrong again. As he has explained on this blog he published two items from these abstracts, one of which didn’t bother you at all!

    Emma’s email was tactless and actionable. Nobody is going to leap to defend that, and while you continue to try and justify sending it out by blaming everyone but yourself you make things worse. Before I published on this, I urged Emma privately to apologise. A tactful email to Jonathan, acknowledging her mistake and apologising for maligning his reputation, would have been enough to make this go away.

    You guys are paid to work in “public relations”. Why is it so hard for you to work all this out?

    Natasha Loder

    July 2, 2010 at 7:15 am

  4. Well, thanks a lot Natasha, for your helpful and polite response. May I make two points:

    1) ‘We’ did not put anything on the ESHRE website. We don’t have authority to do so. The fact that the abstracts were there for all to see for a few days was something we didn’t know about until we started investigating this.

    2) It’s not that we weren’t bothered about the first item, it’s that we didn’t know about it. Monitoring services no longer scan the Sunday Times since it started to demand payment to view the website, and it doesn’t show up on Google. In view of what we know about their track record we probably should have bought a print copy, but we didn’t. Our mistake. However, what good would it have done? Jonathan would have still run the second story…….

    Mary Rice

    July 2, 2010 at 7:49 am

  5. Fabulous. Your points are noted.

    Now are you going to apologise to Jonathan for accusing him of breaking an embargo….

    Natasha Loder

    July 2, 2010 at 9:04 am

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