Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

PNAS in the spotlight: An embargo break on oil sands-toxin study, and a new twist on “available but embargoed”

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Last week, while Embargo Watch was on hiatus, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published a study showing that Alberta’s Athabasca River was being significantly polluted by work on the province’s oil sands.

The journal lifted the study’s Monday 3 p.m. Eastern embargo early, however, after the Globe and Mail ran a story on it at 3 a.m. An email alerting media to the lift went out at 10:46 a.m. Eastern. (Sometime after seeing the Globe and Mail story, but before PNAS lifted the embargo, the CBC ran its own story — later updated. Despite the Globe and Mail story, Embargo Watch hears that earned the CBC a stern warning from EurekAlert, which distributes PNAS releases.)

The Globe and Mail story included this line:

The Globe and Mail received a copy of the study from a third party.

That struck me as unusual, and it may be true for this study, but it’s also true that the Globe and Mail is on the PNAS embargoed access list, through EurekAlert. Recall that the paper’s Andre Picard did not take kindly to what would appear to have been a similar situation involving the Financial Times and the International AIDS Society meeting — although I should note that the Athabasca reporter does not appear to be on the health science desk, so there’s no reason to think Andre had anything to do with this story.

I contacted PNAS to ask whether the Globe and Mail will be struck from the list, and will update if I hear back.

PNAS was involved in another strange embargo situation last week, one that had been going on for most of the month. Earlier in August, Alex Witze, of Science News, saw a commentary in the journal’s embargoed table of contents for the week of August 16. That commentary, by Hans-Dieter Sues, cited a study about a new  Romanian dinosaur.

Trouble was, that study — by Zoltan Csiki and colleagues — hadn’t been published yet, and wasn’t in that embargoed table of contents. When she asked PNAS about the puzzling discrepancy, the press office told her the study’s publication had been pushed back to August 23. But it wasn’t actually published until August 30. (Here are links to the Sues commentary and the Csiki study, both of which now say they were published online on August 31.)

That meant a commentary going into significant detail about a study’s findings was available online for two weeks before the study itself went live.

This is a new twist on “freely available but embargoed,” one that I’m not sure I understand. Why not just hold the commentary until the study is available?

PNAS is often criticized, it should be noted, for not having studies available once their embargo lifts. Maybe they need a coordination manager.

Written by Ivan Oransky

September 9, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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