Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Yes, an advance online study is still in the public domain. You can’t embargo it

with 3 comments

I may be starting a trend here on Embargo Watch: Posts that begin with “Yes” and “No.”

Yesterday, in a post called “No, Society for General Microbiology, you cannot embargo something that has already been published,” I wondered why it would occur to anyone to put an embargo a study that had been available online for a few weeks. Today, after tracking down the origins of a Tuesday exclusive in USA Today, I found out that a university press officer did the same thing.

Here’s what happened: Michigan State University gave USA Today an exclusive on a study by one of their researchers in the Journal of Health Economics showing that”kids who are the youngest in their grades are 60% more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than the oldest children,” according to the story. After USA Today‘s story ran, MSU sent out an unembargoed release.

That’s what Liz Szabo, the USA Today reporter, told me when I asked about the circumstances, and MSU press officer Andy Henion confirmed the fact that the release wasn’t under an embargo. (He didn’t answer any of my questions about the exclusive, but that’s standard practice.)

But here are the wrinkles: First, there’s another study appearing in the same journal, on the same subject, by researchers at North Carolina State University and colleagues elsewhere. Second, that university’s press office sent out a EurekAlert release on it, embargoed until 9 a.m. Eastern the day the USA Today story appeared. (Once EurekAlert releases are past embargo, the embargo time disappears.)

After an Embargo Watch reader saw the story in the morning paper, which had obviously appeared on driveways and hotel doorsteps before 9 a.m., that person sent me a note wondering how USA Today could have had an exclusive on something that was actually embargoed on EurekAlert.

As far as the exclusive, it came from MSU, which hadn’t embargoed their release. I’m not seeing any issues there. Liz mentioned the NCSU study because she knew about it, having looked at the journal’s online table of contents and seeing it along with the MSU one she’d been given an exclusive on.

Now do you see why a straightforward exclusive story has become an item on Embargo Watch? The NCSU study was published online on August 4. The MSU study was published online two months ago, on June 17.

I asked Matt Shipman, who sent out NCSU’s release, why he embargoed a study that had been available online for almost two weeks. He responded:

I wasn’t aware that the paper was available on the journal’s site, in part because the journal is subscription-based. However, it was my understanding that an embargo is permissible until a paper has been published — and the paper has not been published yet.

I corrected Matt, hopefully gently, saying that “published” doesn’t only mean “appeared in a print version of the journal.” Online is published. Anyone with ScienceDirect subscription to the journal could have accessed it. He thanked me, saying he’d bear this in mind next time.

Just to be clear: I have no problem with MSU giving USA Today an exclusive, even on a paper that’s been out for two months. The problem here is that NCSU embargoed something that was already in the public domain, just as the Society for General Microbiology did.

Sorry, NCSU, you can’t do that.

I think we’ve got the answer to my tipster’s question. Now I have one of my own: Should EurekAlert — where the NCSU release, and the Society for General Microbiology release, both appeared — make sure the material they’re posting on behalf of clients is actually embargo-able if clients want it embargoed?

That’s probably not feasible, and EurekAlert says they don’t edit any releases. Still, isn’t there any way to stop this sort of thing?


Written by Ivan Oransky

August 19, 2010 at 2:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. This matters most because of the Eurekalert angle. The sanctions they threaten against embargo breaks are pretty draconian — potential cut-off from all the journals embargoed there, including Science, Cell, PNAS and PLoS titles. It’s easy to see how this would be enough to prevent someone from (fairly) picking up something in the public domain — it wouldn’t be worth the potential downside of the E! zero-tolerance embargo policy.

    Incidentally, I’ve noticed other Eurekalert mis-embargoes recently, particularly releases for Royal Society journals posted with embargoes well after the journal embargo itself has passed.

    Mark Henderson

    August 20, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    • Good point, Mark. Would love to see those other mis-embargoes.


      August 20, 2010 at 3:41 pm

  2. Ah, just ran across this for the first time in years. A good reminder of what a dumba** I was when I first started out as a PIO. Worth noting: it’s a mistake that I only made once! 🙂

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