No, Society for General Microbiology, you cannot embargo something that has already been published
Earlier this week, Alla Katsnelson — a former colleague of mine from The Scientist who’s now a reporter at Nature — emailed me, vexed about what seemed to her like an odd embargo. The Society for General Microbiology, which publishes the Journal of General Virology, had sent out an embargoed press release on EurekAlert about a paper in their September issue. From the release:
Scientists at the University of Cambridge have not only provided the first unequivocal evidence for the ‘hit-and-run hypothesis’ – explaining how some viruses might cause cancer and then mysteriously disappear – but have also shown how a vaccine could arrest them. Equivalent vaccines could help prevent not only known virus-induced human cancers, such as Burkitt’s lymphoma, but also cancers currently unsuspected of having a viral origin.
Sounds interesting, if not for a general audience (because it’s in mice), certainly for Nature‘s readers. Problem was, the paper had already been published online on June 23, nearly two months before its “embargo” was scheduled to lift on August 18 at 7 p.m. Eastern, as this post goes live. That advance online version was not mentioned in the press release.
This all puzzled Alla, who asked the Society for General Microbiology’s press officer, Laura Udakis, for an explanation. Here’s what she got:
A lot of our papers are published ahead of print before as soon as they are accepted, so yes, technically this paper is already in the public domain so in theory any reporter could write about it from this date.
I send out any media releases under embargo until the day that the final, edited, version of the paper is published online. Ideally press releases would coincide with the ahead-of-print publication but as there is almost zero time between papers being accepted and published online, we can’t do this. It’s a little bit of a tricky situation, but as most papers do not come to a journalist’s attention without a media release, this seems like the best solution.
Let’s be clear: I have no problem with press releases, especially when they’re about important studies. (I have a problem with stories that rely solely on press releases, but that’s a separate issue.) So it is perfectly fine to put out a press release about a study that has already been published. I don’t even really mind — even though I probably should — emphasizing that the paper will appear in what seems to be an “upcoming issue,” although intellectual honesty really requires that releases be forthright about when something was originally published.
If reporters need a nudge to cover something, or don’t go through dozens of journals’ tables of contents each week as I do, I can’t blame press officers for publishing releases to get some attention.
But — and I suppose I should apologize for stating the obvious — press releases do not require an embargo. For every embargoed release currently sitting in my inbox, there are probably two or three that either don’t say anything about an embargo, or say something to the effect of “for immediate release.”
Here’s how to do this the right way: Yesterday, the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center published a release about a study in the American Heart Journal that found a link between amphetamine use and aortic tears. That study had appeared in the August issue of the journal — which typically doesn’t embargo anything — and was available online August 5. The release didn’t say anything about an embargo, and because it was still interesting, it still caught the attention of my colleague Maggie Fox, who did a story on the study.
So what I most certainly mind, because it defies logic as well as common sense, and cheapens the very notion of an embargo, is putting an embargo on something that is already in the public domain.
This of course has not stopped a number of societies and journals from doing just that. In April, the University of Leeds embargoed a paper that was already online in Geophysical Review Letters on how quickly melting icebergs were causing the sea level to rise. At least a few institutions, however, have seen the error of their ways and changed their policies.
Oh, Society for General Microbiology, won’t you join the list? Feel free to publish press releases to your heart’s content. But don’t embargo them if they’re about stuff that’s already in the public domain, OK?
It’s not just the Society for General Microbiology. Read Thursday’s post for another example.