Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Financial Times breaks embargo on Science tenofovir anti-HIV microbicide study

with 2 comments

As the International AIDS Conference in Vienna — and its attendant frenzy of news coverage — gets into full swing, the Financial Times broke the embargo today on a Science study of a tenofovir-based microbicide gel designed to prevent HIV. The paper’s embargo was scheduled to lift at 7 a.m. U.S. Eastern Tuesday (tomorrow).

At about 1:30 Eastern today, AAAS/Science sent out the following message:

Science is lifting the embargo, effective immediately, on the paper, “Effectiveness and Safety of Tenofovir Gel, an Antiretroviral Microbicide, for the Prevention of HIV Infection in Women,” by Abdool Karim et al., due to the publication of a story by Andrew Jack of the Financial Times and subsequent stories responding to that coverage.

The note goes on to say that the embargo is still the regular 2 p.m. Eastern Thursday for the rest of the Science content. The tenofovir study’s embargo was early to coincide with a presentation in Vienna.

An updated version of the story — but not the original — contained the following paragraph, which acknowledges the upcoming publication but attributes the data to people knowledgeable about the study, rather than the paper itself:

The journal Science is due to release the full findings on Tuesday but two people breifed on the study said it showed that in patients who took the microbicide consistently, it cut HIV infection by 39 per cent, rising to 54 per cent among those who were consistently using it in line with instructions.

I emailed the AAAS/Science office to find out more about the circumstances of the break, and they said they would be able to say more later this week, so I’ll update when I hear from them again. (Update 2 p.m. Eastern, 7/21/10: Please see comment from AAAS’ Ginger Pinholster below for lots of helpful details, including one that prompted me to correct the paragraph describing the quotation above. Upshot: “Upon investigation, we were unable to find any evidence, based on EurekAlert! records, that the Financial Times obtained their information from us.”)

Thanks to a number of people who let me know about the break by email and Twitter. I got the email from AAAS/Science too, of course, but the entire Embargo Watch staff was tied up today on a family matter — yes, we are all related — so am just getting to this now.

See update in new post, and the FT’s Andrew Jack’s comments, as well as a post about the IAS’ “freely available but embargoed” policy.

Written by Ivan Oransky

July 19, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. 21 July 2010

    Dear Mr. Oransky:

    I’m writing in response to your request for additional information on Science’s early embargo release related to the study, “Effectiveness and Safety of Tenofovir Gel, an Antiretroviral Microbicide, for the Prevention of HIV Infection in Women,” by Q. Abdool Karim et al. This research was reported at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria, and also published 19 July 2010 on the ScienceExpress Web site.

    The article is now freely available to the public via the Science Web site (see http://tinyurl.com/HIV-Science).

    In light of the public health implications for this research, the story had originally been set for release as soon as possible after acceptance by Science, specifically at 7:00 a.m. U.S. ET / 1:00 p.m. CEST Tuesday, 20 July, to coincide with a presentation at the AIDS conference and a related press event in Durban, South Africa.

    But reporters informed us during an embargoed teleconference Monday, 19 July, that a story containing the key details had been posted to the Financial Times Web site. The original version of that story, contrary to the first Embargo Watch posting on this episode, included no mention of the journal Science. (The Financial Times story was only later updated to reference the Science paper.)

    However, the Financial Times article did disclose the research punchline, and this prompted a number of other media outlets to post their own stories. We immediately lifted the Science embargo and issued a notice to all Science Press Package recipients.

    Upon investigation, we were unable to find any evidence, based on EurekAlert! records, that the Financial Times obtained their information from us. The reporter, Mr. Andrew Jack, is registered to access Science materials on EurekAlert!, but unfortunately, he had not logged on for months. Similarly, another FT reporter who normally would track the Science Press Package had been on vacation throughout the episode.

    Mr. Jack has assured me that he had not been aware of the forthcoming Science paper.

    He knew only that the CAPRISA team would be releasing results on Tuesday at the conference that he had been assigned to cover. He had e-mailed a spokeswoman for Family Health International (FHI) to ask for an embargoed copy of the findings. He noted in his request to her that he would not broadcast the material until “late Tuesday evening” (after the embargo lift). The FHI representative declined to provide Mr. Jack with the advance information. Mr. Jack then began to pursue the information on his own. (“I dug around and unearthed the two data points myself independently,” he said.) The FHI representative, Ms. Beth Robinson, has corroborated this sequence of events.

    Although the FT obtained information as a result of independent information gathering, and not from Science, they did immediately remove the story from their Web site as soon as I contacted them to complain. My e-mail to the FT was Mr. Jack’s first notice that the research being released at the conference was related to a Science paper. (They later re-posted their story after we lifted the Science embargo.)

    I understand from the Embargo Watch blog that a separate question has now been raised about whether Mr. Jack violated the embargo policy of the International AIDS Conference. I’m of course unable to address this.

    Speaking for Science, our fact-finding suggests that Mr. Jack had no prior knowledge of the forthcoming Science paper, and he did not obtain any information about this research from us.

    Ginger Pinholster

    Ginger Pinholster

    July 21, 2010 at 1:55 pm

  2. I’m less than convinced by Mr Jack’s response. Ignorance is not an excuse; you’re responsible for checking out all aspects of your story. As even relatively junior reporters know, major scientific discoveries presented at international conferences are frequently accompanied by publication in scientific journals, with associated embargoes. A journalist at his level should know better than to let that go unchecked. At the very least, Andrew Jack is admitting to incompetent journalism.

    Evelyn Harvey

    July 23, 2010 at 8:16 am


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