Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

What makes an embargo an embargo? Views from PNAS and Cell

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So if a study is published in the forest, and no one reads it, was it embargoed?

With apologies for that tortured metaphor, this email went out yesterday at 1:03 p.m. Eastern:

**Highlights from the 1 October print issue of Cell; the embargo on this article has lifted.**

-How Injured Nerves Grow Themselves Back:

Unlike nerves of the spinal cord, the peripheral nerves that connect our limbs and organs to the central nervous system have an astonishing ability to regenerate themselves after injury. Now, a new report in the October 1st issue of Cell, a Cell Press publication, offers new insight into how that healing process works.

My former colleague, Edyta Zielinska, flagged the notice for me. She didn’t know why the embargo had been lifted. Normally such emails mean someone has broken it. She also said it was the first announcement about the paper, which looked interesting to her.

I checked with Cathleen Genova, who handles press for the Cell Press journals:

The article published early online, and the decision was later made to press release the paper, so the embargo has already lifted, as of last week.

The paper, she said, was embargoed until 12 noon Eastern the day it was published, as is the case for all Cell Press papers.

I’ve written about Cell Press embargoes before, noting that Genova is the only press person responsible for 28 journals. That could explain why things fall through the cracks there.

The exchange, perhaps summed up as “we embargoed this but didn’t tell anyone it was coming,” reminded me of the exchange I had with PNAS last week about the Linda Buck retraction. They timed that retraction’s release to the 2 p.m. Eastern Thursday Science embargo, but refused to release it to the press in advance, despite requests from several outlets who were covering the Science embargo.

It’s unclear to me what would have happened if a media relations rep from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center hadn’t mentioned it while responding to requests about the Science retraction — which was included in that week’s embargoed press packet. But in any case, the managing editor of PNAS insisted it was not embargoed, just being held until the Science embargo.

So if something comes out in a journal that was embargoed by default, but never released in advance, or held for someone else’s embargo, but not released in advance, was it embargoed? I think it’s instructive to look at these two interpretations by two leading journals. I would argue that the first case isn’t an embargo at all, but that the second is.

But that semantic argument is less important than the journals’ intent and attempts at transparency. Cell held its study until it was ready to be published, presumably, and then just couldn’t get it together to put out a press release.  Why not just send out the table of contents in advance, even if you can’t get a release together, if the point is to give reporters time to do better coverage? I don’t have a problem with journals selecting certain studies for press releases, but since reporters should be looking at an entire study before deciding whether to cover it, send out the TOC and let journalists rifle through it themselves. Most of the studies we end up covering at Reuters Health, for example, were never embargoed.

And in the PNAS case, as I argued last week, either send out the retraction early, on an embargoed basis, or just publish it as soon as it’s ready. I still can’t quite figure out the point of holding it but not releasing it. Given that reporters will be writing about the Science retraction, why not let them include as much as possible in their stories?

Unless, of course, you were hoping a retraction fell in the publishing forest and no reporter was around to see it. But that couldn’t be. Journals are all about transparency, right?


Written by Ivan Oransky

September 28, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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