Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Gastroenterology journals’ twist on “available for subscribers, but embargoed”

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I’ve written before about policies at CHEST and the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine (AJRCCM) that keep studies embargoed even though they’re already available for subscribers online. In the case of AJRCCM, papers are embargoed for two weeks after they’ve appeared online, while CHEST embargoes such papers until they show up in a print issue. That interval varies; this week I was checking some for coverage and it was as long as several months.

It turns out that two journals published by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) — Gastroenterology and Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology — have a similar policy. At these journals, studies appear online ahead of print and are available to journal subscribers and those with access through ScienceDirect, but are embargoed until they’re in “corrected proof” form.

A note to users on the “Articles In Press” site of Gastroenterology explains the different stages of studies that appear there:

Note to users: The section “Articles in Press” contains peer reviewed and accepted articles to be published in this journal. When the final article is assigned to an issue of the journal, the “Article in Press” version will be removed from this section and will appear in the associated journal issue. Please be aware that “Articles in Press” do not have all bibliographic details available yet. There are three types of “Articles in Press”:

  • Accepted Manuscripts: these are manuscripts that have been selected for publication. They have not been typeset and the text may change before final publication.
  • Uncorrected proofs: these are articles that are not yet finalized and that will be corrected by the authors. Therefore the text could change before final publication. Uncorrected proofs may be temporarily unavailable for production reasons.
  • Corrected proofs: these are articles containing the authors’ corrections. The content of the article will usually remain unchanged, and possible further corrections are fairly minor. Typically the only difference with the finally published article is that specific issue and page numbers have not yet been assigned.

That same note appears on the ScienceDirect version of Gastroenterology that I and many others use to access journals.

Nowhere on that page, however, nor on the manuscripts themselves, does the embargo policy appear. For that, you have to go to different parts of the journal site — which you don’t have to click on to find the “Articles in Press” section.

The policy for articles in press, which appears here and here along with the same description of those types of manuscripts that appears above, is as follows:

All studies published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology are embargoed until published as a corrected proof on-line. Studies cannot be publicized as accepted manuscripts or uncorrected proofs.

Looking at Gastroenterology‘s articles in press site today, there are 135 studies, some published as early as March, but only five that are “corrected proofs,” according to my count. So there are 130 studies there that are freely available to subscribers, but that journalists would be breaking an embargo by writing about.

I emailed Aimee Frank, the AGA’s director of public relations, for the rationale behind the policy, and she wrote:

The studies are embargoed until they are in the corrected proof form so we can ensure they are the final manuscripts that will be printed. Until the manuscripts are corrected proofs, there may be edits from the authors which provide clarification to the data being discussed.

While I can understand why a journal would only want reporters to write about finalized text, I’m not sure I understand why they’d publish the uncorrected proofs if the concern is accuracy. More to the point, you can’t really embargo content that’s available online, which some conference organizers are coming to realize.

But even if that policy is defensible, it needs to be clearly noted. I followed up with Aimee by phone to discuss why the policy wasn’t available in a place that anyone reading one of the articles in press would have to come across it. That’s what CHEST and the AJRCCM do — in fact, the latter stamps it on every manuscript. (That’s what makes the CHEST and AGA policies even more frustrating — there’s no way to know when something will be off embargo. The best a reporter can do is sign up for alerts and search each one for the papers they’ve identified and put in the “to cover” pile.”)

Aimee said that the policy had been in a more prominent place, but that the sites had recently been through a redesign, so the site may still have some tweaks to come. Fair enough, but I pointed out to her that until it’s impossible for reporters to get to the embargoed material without seeing the embargo policy, there was really nothing keeping them from writing about the embargoed studies. That, after all, is what has happened a few times recently with stories by Jonathan Leake of the Sunday Times about studies being presented at conferences.

Aimee said she hadn’t been aware of those situations, and agreed that it would be a good idea to post the policy more prominently. I suggested that simply adding the two lines of the accepted manuscript embargo policy in the “note to users” that appears on the articles in press page would do it, although the AJRCCM solution is even better. She said she’d discuss it with others at the journal.

In case you think it’s only me who raises my eyebrows at these kinds of policies, here’s what consultant Denise Graveline, a former communications director for several major nonprofits and a federal agency, had to say about them in a blog post yesterday:

If the paper’s published online, even in a subscriber-only location, is it clearly marked as embargoed for reporters? And when reporters agree to your embargo policies (you do ask them to agree to one, right), are you making them aware of this?  My own preference here would be to avoid embargoing that which is published for a large group of subscribers.

Written by Ivan Oransky

July 9, 2010 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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