Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Nature lifts Samoa-Tonga tsunami “double earthquake” study embargo early after stories appear

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courtesy Nature

Nature has lifted the embargo on two papers in this week’s issue describing the seismic events that led to a tsunami that killed nearly 200 people in Samoa and Tonga last September, according to an email that went out from their press office earlier today:

Due to early reporting we are lifting the embargo on the below papers. The rest of this week’s Nature press release remains under embargo until 1800 London time (BST) today, Wednesday 18 August, but you may report on the below research now.

According to the journal’s press release:

The tsunami that devastated Samoa and Tonga in September 2009 was caused by two giant, near-simultaneous earthquakes, one of which was hidden by the other…

It’s unclear who broke the embargo, and under what circumstances. The earliest story on the study, according to Google News, was from the AFP at about 7 p.m. Eastern Tuesday, 18 hours before the embargo was scheduled to lift. Another story appeared on Radio New Zealand — one of the papers’ lead authors is at New Zealand’s GNS Science — time-stamped 7:15 p.m. today, which corresponds to 3:15 a.m. Eastern, almost 10 hours before the embargo.

I’ve contacted the Nature press office for more details, and will update with anything I hear back.

Update, 8 a.m. Eastern, 8/18/2010: Ruth Francis, of the Nature press office, responded to my request, after — understandably — making sure the studies were posted on the journal’s website so reporters and the public could see the work for themselves:

…here’s what I know so far with grateful thanks to the New Zealand Science Media Centre who had hosted a press briefing with the local research team and were on the ground as the events were unfolding and my team, in London and New York, were still enjoying our sleep.

It seems the breach was first flagged by local commercial radio journalist from NZT who participated in that NZ briefing. They’d seen the story had come across the wire from AAP [Australian Associated Press].

AAP asserted that they were not responsible because the story had come to AAP from AFP (Wellington) with no embargo stated.

GNS’ press officer had issued a version of the press release with the embargo listed in the email body, but not reproduced in the attachment. Anyone working from the attached word document alone would have been unaware of the embargo, and that is what seems to have happened. And AFP had worked from the attachment and did issue a correction/advisory but by this point the story was being run online and by broadcasters.

I note — with an obvious conflict of interest since AFP is a competitor to my employer, from whom this blog is completely independent — that the AFP has been involved in two breaks since Embargo Watch launched in February. One, by their own admission, was unintentional and their fault, while the other was a client’s fault. As Ruth notes, this new case seems to have been because of poor embargo communication from GNS Science, a New Zealand government-owned research organization.

Written by Ivan Oransky

August 18, 2010 at 7:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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