Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Why “alien” life, aka arsenic-loving bacteria, embargo fiasco was deja vu for Sun Spaceman Paul Sutherland

with 4 comments

courtesy Paul Sutherland

Did you think I was done with posts on the arsenic-based bacteria embargo mess? I wouldn’t bet on it.

For Paul Sutherland, a freelancer The Sun calls Sun Spaceman, the episode is just deja vu. Sutherland, who broke the story this week and was accused by The Mail of breaking an embargo, has done this dance with Science before, for those of you who don’t know.

In January 2009, Sutherland scooped the rest of the world’s press outlets with news of methane on Mars. That didn’t sit well with Science, which was about to publish a still-embargoed paper on the find. As Sutherland recalled on his blog, the journal “rang The Sun’s newsdesk at 3am demanding the story be removed from the paper’s website.”

The newsdesk was nonchalant, AAAS/EurekAlert’s Ginger Pinholster later said, and two Sun reporters who were, unlike Sutherland, registered for EurekAlert access, didn’t respond to emails. Based on that behavior and a previous embargo break, EurekAlert banned The Sun from getting embargoed material for six months.

But that ban was quickly lifted, Sutherland noted in his blog,

…as the journal itself soon realised and accepted, no embargo was breached because I had no access to, nor indeed knowledge of, any privileged information.

I asked Sutherland for his take on this week (Pinholster hasn’t contacted him this time):

It was almost an exact rerun of my Life On Mars scoop for The Sun in January last year when I correctly revealed that NASA had detected methane on the red planet that could be from living microbes. But this time, just as then, I broke no embargoes and simply worked out what NASA were going to reveal from details in their announcement of the press conference.

Despite wild and rampant speculation on the web, it was clear that the conference was unlikely to be about a discovery of extra-terrestrial life, for the reasons very well put forward by Stuart Atkinson here. But as with Mars, I simply checked out the research interests and activities of the scientists who would be on NASA’s conference panel. In particular, I found that Felisa Wolfe-Simon had been looking for life that was dependent on arsenic in Mono Lake, California. Earlier this year Felisa said in an interview that she had exciting results that she was not yet able to reveal. I figured that NASA were hardly going to call a top-flight conference for her to say she had found nothing!

My interview with brilliant young UK astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell, a fuller version of which is on my website, did not get it completely right – it seems this is a form of life that has adapted to using arsenic rather than an independent, shadow biosphere. But I’m glad that, free from the shackles of the embargo system, we were able to balance some of the speculative nonsense out there.

Roy Greenslade concluded his Guardian column on last year’s incident as follows:

His scoop has certainly stimulated controversy among the community of science journalists, in the States and in Britain. Some of them are clearly upset about Sutherland acting like a reporter while others are wondering whether he has a point about the passivity of a news-managed journalism.

I think we’re still having that debate.


Written by Ivan Oransky

December 3, 2010 at 12:14 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Is the obligation of a journalist to be first with wrong material?–that seems to be Paul’s justification for his story. How many errors can we count in his opening graphs? There wasn’t even a “discovery” of the type noted in the Sun’s lede–it was already known microbes existed in Mono Lake, even known that microbes used arsenic for photosynthesis.

    I respected the writers–bloggers and journalists–who analyzed NASA’s cryptic email and the speaker list to responsibly speculate and beat our embargo. I might have done the same if in another job. But I would haven’t published what the Sun did and then taken pride in it.

    john (who of course should disclose the conflict of working at Science)

    John Travis

    December 3, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    • I’m a fan of Paul’s but I have to agree with John on this one. What is more important: getting it right or getting it first? Is anyone seriously going to argue that it’s the latter? The “shadow biosphere” hype for this story is proving to be just as pernicious as the “it might be aliens” hype, and harder to dampen.

      Ed Yong

      December 3, 2010 at 6:40 pm

      • “What is more important: getting it right or getting it first? Is anyone seriously going to argue that it’s the latter?”
        Call me cynical, but I would have thought a lot of people in the tabloid newspaper business would argue the latter (and this is The Sun we’re discussing).

        Bob O'H

        December 5, 2010 at 12:52 pm

  2. “In January 2009, Sutherland scooped the rest of the world’s press outlets with news of methane on Mars.”

    In fact, Nature had broken this news in October 2008 (see ‘ Plumes of methane identified on Mars‘, three months before Sutherland’s piece. As reporter Eric Hand explained on The Great Beyond blog at the time of NASA’s press brouhaha, he’d got the story from Mumma’s talk at a conference at Cornell University – also, Mumma had been talking about his methane for years.

    It is often the case that specialist science news services get these things from conferences well before mainstream media. I was intrigued at the time by Sutherland’s explanation of how he’d worked out the Mars story – as a diligent Google search should have made the whole story clear from the article on Nature’s website.

    Richard (who works at Nature).


    December 3, 2010 at 3:03 pm

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