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