Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Does announcing you have a paper in Nature break an embargo?

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Every year, the Nobel Laureate Meetings at Lindau gather dozens of Nobel laureates. Hundreds of young scientists are given the chance to hear lectures from these scientific luminaries, and mingle with them.

This year, Theodor Hansch, who shared the 1985 Nobel Prize in Physics, was one such Nobel lecturer. At about 30:00 in this video from early last week’s meeting, Theodor teases the audience with hints of results of a paper in the July 8 Nature. At one point, he seems about to give some data, but then decides not to, although it’s not clear if that’s because he’s run out of time or because he realizes he’d be breaking an embargo.

So is announcing that you have a paper in Nature an embargo break?

Without any results, I didn’t think it was, but I thought I’d check with Ruth Francis, head of press at Nature Publishing Group. Nope, she said, pointing me to Nature‘s embargo policy, which includes a fairly permissive section on 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).

This advice may jar with those (including most researchers and all journalists) who see the freedom of information as a good thing, but it embodies a longer-term view: that publication in a peer-reviewed journal is the appropriate culmination of any piece of original research, and an essential prerequisite for public discussion.

So, no harm, no foul.

When it comes to physics, I’m rusty but at least educated in mechanics, electricity, and magnetism, and the like. At this level, however, my level of knowledge in physics is embarrassing. As far as I can tell, the paper, which was was in fact published in today’s Nature, is about better ways to measure the size of the proton. Read it for more detail.

(An aside: I am reminded of a series of courses I had the opportunity to attend during high school as part of a Columbia University program. Every Saturday morning, I’d drive from the suburbs down to Morningside Heights in Manhattan and hear lectures, sometimes on concepts I could grasp, sometimes not. I remember several that seemed to hinge on the idea that “heavy doping leads to degeneracy,” which had something to do with lasers but which sent me and my classmates into fits of laughter following every class. This was, after all, the Nancy Reagan “just say no” era. Pardon my nostalgia.)

Hat tip to Martin Fenner, who alerted me to the Hansch lecture and wondered whether it was an embargo break.


Written by Ivan Oransky

July 8, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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