Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

FT’s Andrew Jack’s account of tenofovir anti-HIV microbicide incident

with 6 comments

Earlier this week, I asked Andrew Jack of the Financial Times, whose story on Science study of a tenofovir-based microbicide gel designed to prevent HIV infection caused the journal to lift the embargo on it early, for his version of the incident’s events. As Embargo Watch readers know, AAAS/Science’s Ginger Pinholster did not find any evidence that the FT got the information about the study from their EurekAlert! service. However, the organizers of the International AIDS Society (IAS) conference — where the results published in Science were presented this week — claimed the FT’s story “went against the spirit of the conference embargo policy.”

Here is Andrew’s comment, which fills in lots of important details and also raises important questions about embargo policies and their implementation. Read from start to finish:

To be clear: I always respect embargoes. But this case is rather more complex than that.

To me, respecting embargoes means reporting on documents, papers in journals, etc, that are provided to me in advance of their release, on condition of writing about them only on or after an agreed date.

But I had not seen the Science paper in advance, nor any other abstract. If I had, then I would of course have respected any embargoes.

When I arrived at the conference over the weekend, I was referred to [ global health and development organization] FHI as co-sponsor of the study, and I contacted them precisely to ask whether I could see the data in advance, in order to prepare articles under embargo.

The organisation’s communications department told me there were no plans to release any data ahead of 1pm Vienna time on Tuesday.

It therefore not only failed to provide any details of the study or the promise of embargoed materials but also effectively threw me off the scent.

Specifically, it did not alert me to the fact that Science was publishing the data – an indication that would obviously have allowed me to contact the publication to seek an embargoed copy.

I got the same reaction from the IAS communications people, who also simply referred me to the Caprisa session on their abstracts website.

But there were no results or even a vague abstract of the findings of Caprisa on the site, to which I had been granted access in advance with an agreement to respect the embargoes of the delivery times of the papers on which it provided details.

There was just the title of the paper, which gave no indication of the result, and had been widely known, plugged in advance and reported already.

It seems that some selected journalists were in fact given advance briefings in previous days under embargo. That was certainly not the case for me. So, too, apparently were dozens if not hundreds of scientists, officials etc briefed on the results.

Apparently there was also an embargoed Science press briefing on Monday evening. I was not aware of that in advance, nor invited to participate.

I only discovered it was taking place when Science contacted me during the call, after some of those participating pointed out my recently released online version of the story.

When I learned that copies of the article had already been issued to some journalists, I asked the FT to withdraw the story. But with the details out on the web, Science lifted the embargo and we republished.

All these facts had led me to believe that no data would be released to any journalists ahead of the Tuesday announcement, and I was not bound by an embargo on Caprisa results which I discovered by other means.

I could hardly be bound by an embargo when I neither had seen the papers nor attended briefings, nor had any indication that other journalists would be briefed.

When I managed instead, independently, to obtain the headline results through discussions with sources, it was not through any deception. Nor were these “embargoed” conversations.

After the story broke, I was accused by IAS of breaking the “spirit” of the embargo. This seems to me to be taking the concept of embargoes into new and dangerous territory.

The IAS argued that the idea was to allow researchers to explain their ideas in confidence with journalists in advance of release, so they could write up the stories well and responsibly.

But there was no such open discussion or sharing of data between journalists attending IAS/having access to its embargoed abstracts on one hand, and the researchers studying Caprisa’s effectiveness on the other. There were only selective embargoed briefings to a small number of journalists, of which I was not one.

Does the “spirit” of embargo mean that all information that takes place at IAS meetings must be negotiated around set-piece events with fixed released times, even when journalists are not granted any official early access to information in exchange? That seems to be taking things too far.

To put it another way: am I expected to respect a blanket embargo that binds me to all of its constraints – of delays to publication – but with none of its advantages: those of early access to the data and the researchers? That hardly seems reasonable.

I repeat: I had no advance access to the Science article or data provided by it, the IAS or the researchers involved of any sort, let alone via any embargo agreement. I therefore believe I did not break any embargo.

I acted as any journalist should, in digging up information, verifying it and reporting it responsibly.

To prevent anything similar happening again, I suggest that organisers and sponsors of scientific and medical conferences should ensure that there is a level playing field for the journalists who are registered to attend. That means giving all accredited reporters the opportunity to take part in embargoed press briefings and receive embargoed materials. The journalists can then choose whether or not to do so. If there is a level playing field, the chance of a disruptive, unwitting embargo breach is reduced.

Also see a post about the IAS’ “freely available but embargoed” policy.

To be clear: I always respect embargoes. But this case is rather more complex than that.To me, respecting embargoes means reporting on documents, papers in journals, etc, that are provided to me in advance of their release, on condition of writing about them only on or after an agreed date.

But I had not seen the Science paper in advance, nor any other abstract. If I had, then I would of course have respected any embargoes.

When I arrived at the conference over the weekend, I was referred to FHI as co-sponsor of the study, and I contacted them precisely to ask whether I could see the data in advance, in order to prepare articles under embargo.

The organisation's communications department told me there were no plans to release any data ahead of 1pm Vienna time on Tuesday.

It therefore not only failed to provide any details of the study or the promise of embargoed materials but also effectively threw me off the scent.

Specifically, it did not alert me to the fact that Science was publishing the data - an indication that would obviously have allowed me to contact the publication to seek an embargoed copy.

I got the same reaction from the IAS communications people, who also simply referred me to the Caprisa session on their abstracts website.

But there were no results or even a vague abstract of the findings of Caprisa on the site, to which I had been granted access in advance with an agreement to respect the embargoes of the delivery times of the papers on which it provided details.

There was just the title of the paper, which gave no indication of the result, and had been widely known, plugged in advance and reported already.

It seems that some selected journalists were in fact given advance briefings in previous days under embargo. That was certainly not the case for me. So, too, apparently were dozens if not hundreds of scientists, officials etc briefed on the results.

Apparently there was also an embargoed Science press briefing on Monday evening. I was not aware of that in advance, nor invited to participate.

I only discovered it was taking place when Science contacted me during the call, after some of those participating pointed out my recently released online version of the story.

When I learned that copies of the article had already been issued to some journalists, I asked the FT to withdraw the story. But with the details out on the web, Science lifted the embargo and we republished.

All these facts had led me to believe that no data would be released to any journalists ahead of the Tuesday announcement, and I was not bound by an embargo on Caprisa results which I discovered by other means.

I could hardly be bound by an embargo when I neither had seen the papers nor attended briefings, nor had any indication that other journalists would be briefed.

When I managed instead, independently, to obtain the headline results through discussions with sources, it was not through any deception. Nor were these "embargoed" conversations.

After the story broke, I was accused by IAS of breaking the "spirit" of the embargo. This seems to me to be taking the concept of embargoes into new and dangerous territory.

The IAS argued that the idea was to allow researchers to explain their ideas in confidence with journalists in advance of release, so they could write up the stories well and responsibly.

But there was no such open discussion or sharing of data between journalists attending IAS/having access to its embargoed abstracts on one hand, and the researchers studying Caprisa's effectiveness on the other. There were only selective embargoed briefings to a small number of journalists, of which I was not one.

Does the "spirit" of embargo mean that all information that takes place at IAS meetings must be negotiated around set-piece events with fixed released times, even when journalists are not granted any official early access to information in exchange? That seems to be taking things too far.

To put it another way: am I expected to respect a blanket embargo that binds me to all of its constraints - of delays to publication - but with none of its advantages: those of early access to the data and the researchers? That hardly seems reasonable.

I repeat: I had no advance access to the Science article or data provided by it, the IAS or the researchers involved of any sort, let alone via any embargo agreement. I therefore believe I did not break any embargo.

I acted as any journalist should, in digging up information, verifying it and reporting it responsibly.

To prevent anything similar happening again, I suggest that organisers and sponsors of scientific and medical conferences should ensure that there is a level playing field for the journalists who are registered to attend. That means giving all accredited reporters the opportunity to take part in embargoed press briefings and receive embargoed materials. The journalists can then choose whether or not to do so. If there is a level playing field, the chance of a disruptive, unwitting embargo breach is reduced.

Written by Ivan Oransky

July 22, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. Based of this account, Andrew Jack deserves our congratulations for his competitive enterprise, not criticism for his failure to abide by embargoes to which he was not a party. The charge that he violated the “spirit” of a conference embargo by his independent reporting does seem like the caviling of those who tried and failed to orchestrate news coverage about a pressing matter of public health for their own convenience.

    Robert Lee Hotz

    Robert Lee Hotz

    July 22, 2010 at 1:42 pm

  2. As Andrew’s colleague, I agree with Robert. Andrew has done as much as any newspaper journalist to cover HIV/Aids fully and responsibly over the last few years.

    Though, if the orchestration had been more competent – offering all registered journalists the opportunity to obtain embargoed material, rather than an arbitrarily selected few – it would probably have succeeded.

    Clive Cookson

    July 22, 2010 at 1:58 pm

  3. I have myself been in the position of independently reporting and publishing a story that unbeknownst to me was simultaneously under a journal embargo, so can accept Andrew’s story as plausible. I support Lee and Clive’s comments here, and also the recommendations in Andrew’s concluding paragraph.

    Maryn

    July 23, 2010 at 11:13 am

  4. His account strikes me as disingenuous. He says he got the information from “non-embargoed” sources. His definition of an embargoed source seems to be communications official.

    It’s true that CAPRISA’s results were known by hundreds of stakeholder in advance. I was one. If I’d been approached by a journalist at the meeting, I would have happily given by appraisal of the study. However, I would have not thought to ask if I had to secure a commitment that the journalist would respect the study’s embargo. I would have never thought I’d need to ask for such a commitment. Were his sources fully aware that he was prepared to publish immediately based on what they were telling him? I doubt it. I also doubt that it never occurred to Andrew Jack that there was an embargo in place. It sounds like he was all too happy to stick it to IAS.

    However, if FHI or IAS was not providing material to credentialed journalists. That’s just unfair! An embargo should give a level playing field. Otherwise, what is the point?

    Dave Glidden

    July 24, 2010 at 9:46 pm

  5. Once again, another journalist gets the blame for doing his job, and conference organisers manage to deflect blame from their poor performance by blaming the media.

    Natasha Loder

    July 25, 2010 at 6:17 pm

  6. I think it would be helpful for you to clarify what you think the respective responsibilities of the trial sponsors and IAS were exactly, as these are separate entities. Andrew Jack’s weaselly attempt at justification is not believable to me at all, if he was talking to anyone about the CAPRISA results then he knew about the embargo.

    Richard Jefferys

    October 1, 2010 at 9:02 am


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