Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

What moving science writing “upstream” could mean for embargoes

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Brian Reid

In a March guest post, Brian Reid — a former reporter for Bloomberg who’s now a director at PR/communications firm WCG — wondered aloud about how the embargo system could break. In this post, he picks up on a recent thread of discussion about trends in science journalism, and muses on what it could mean for embargoes.

Last month, PLoS Medicine published a piece that cut to the heart of what makes health and medical journalism so tricky: there are 75 clinical studies being published every day, along with 11 systemic reviews. That is a boatload of data, too much for almost anyone (with the possible exception of Ivan) to process. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg, not factoring in the dozens of other sources of scientific information. It seems like that information overload is far more of a threat to journalism than some of the other bugaboos raised by the Columbia Journalism Review lately (a topic I addressed from a public-relations point of view here).

Fortuitously, a new approach to science journalism could offer a reprieve from the firehose of clinical information. There has been increasing chatter in journalism circles about moving reporting “upstream,” for example this post by Alice Bell: focusing less on the results of a given area of investigation and more on the process of science. This isn’t exactly a new idea; it has a fine tradition and there is a lot to be said for the “upstream” idea. Almost by definition, it emphasizes narrative. It illustrates that science is open-ended, and that today’s breakthrough is merely the starting point for tomorrow’s hypothesis.

Focusing on research that is still ongoing is likely to make a lot of people very nervous, not the least of which are people who have come to rely on the embargo system. Like it or not, researchers now live by the infamous Ingelfinger Rule: if you talk up your results ahead of publication, you risk losing the opportunity to publish. And there are plenty of labs — public and private — that would prefer to keep a lid on information that can’t be controlled.

But with 75 groups of investigators fighting for attention (via publication) every day, there would be a strong motivation for many scientists to throw back the curtain and invite in reporters looking to watch the messy process of science up close. By no means would that access kill the embargo system — researchers will still keep final results close to the vest and publish in the usual way — but going upstream would weaken embargoes by de-emphasizing that final step in the research process.

I don’t expect upstream reporting to suddenly become mainstream. It’s intense work without an immediate payoff. But reporters, increasingly, now have a choice: they can try to keep up with the 20,000+ clinical trial reports flooding their inbox, or they can take a step back and explain the scientific process. The latter option is looking better and better.

Written by Ivan Oransky

October 5, 2010 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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