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