Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

A new development, courtesy the ASCB: The indefinite embargo

with 2 comments

When reporters showed up at the American Society for Cell Biology’s 50th annual meeting this week in Philadelphia, they were met with a puzzling update to the meeting’s press book. Three of the abstracts listed in that book as embargoed until they were presented at prescheduled times during the meeting were now embargoed indefinitely.

The indefinite embargo was a new concept for me, as was the idea that a society could change the times once they’d already sent out a clearly marked press book weeks earlier. On top of that, it turned out that all three of those abstracts — as well as thousands of others — were freely available, no registration required, on the ASCB website.

All of that made about as much sense to me as the slogan for the conference, “Brokeback Mitochondria.” The press book, as did posters and other promotional materials, featured two mice dressed as cowboys, against a mountain backdrop. If anyone can explain what a movie about two men who have a secret gay life has to do with cell biology, I’d appreciate it. (No, it’s not because anyone was discussing “gay genes,” whatever those are, according to Popular Science.)

There are three issues here:

  1. The indefinite embargo
  2. Moving embargo goalposts in the middle of the game
  3. Embargoing something that is already freely available

I asked ASCB science writer John Fleischman — who was on the ground at the meeting, and discussed this with Brendan Maher, who tipped me off to the indefinite embargoes — to explain what was going on, and how the ASCB justified their policy.

Fleischman was quite responsive, over a series of emails, and I appreciate that. He asked me to make it clear that he was “speaking as a professional science writer and not for the ASCB itself,” which he called “the most progressive of scientific societies.”

The indefinite embargo, Fleischman said, was the result of authors’ interpretation of the Ingelfinger Rule:

A number of big journals have a fierce “no-publicity while under submission or waiting for publication” policy. These include the journal groups of Nature, Science, and Cell, although the practice is spreading through smaller commercial journals. In essence, if you “promote” your paper to press at a scientific meeting (say by attending a press briefing), the big journals will return your ms.  as no-longer novel. As the ASCB Public Information Committee, we will do nothing to hurt any member’s chances of a major publication so while we are not happy about this policy, we must abide by it.

That’s the long answer. The short answer is that these three papers are under submission or pre-publication journal embargoes. You should check with the authors for further details.

It was refreshing to hear that the ASCB wasn’t happy about feeling the need to do this. Reporters weren’t either.

OK, so the Ingelfinger Rule explains why an author wouldn’t want to court publicity with a press conference. Presenting at a scientific conference is fine, and it’s even fine if a reporter happens to be in the room. As Fleischman noted in a subsequent email:

The Big Journals, however, throw in a loophole, saying that publishing a meeting abstract and giving a meeting talk are NOT prohibited. (That would provoke a terrible backlash.) Only “promoting publicity” by talking with an reporter is prohibited. I’m not sure I see the distinction.

Actually, Nature says talking with reporter is fine, as long as you don’t actually encourage it:

Our guidelines for authors and potential authors in such circumstances are clear-cut in principle: communicate with other researchers as much as you wish, but do not encourage premature publication by discussion with the press (beyond a formal presentation, if at a conference).

But I’m splitting hairs. The important difference at ASCB was that these abstracts were already sent out on an embargoed basis, embargoed for particular times, and now they were embargoed indefinitely — held hostage, you might say, to a peer review and publication process whose length couldn’t be predicted.

Fleischman’s suggestion to check with the authors was a good one, so I contacted an institution where one of the authors works. (In keeping with Embargo Watch practice, I won’t be more specific than that, since despite the fact that I find these embargoes beyond indefensible, and am tempted to call them insulting, I will uphold them instead of put colleagues in jeopardy of losing embargoed access.) That particular paper was not yet submitted when the press conference was scheduled. The author had agreed to let ASCB promote it with a press conference, but changed his or her mind later and decided such a move would threaten publication.

At best, that’s poor planning. But the indefinite embargo is wrong. No one I know would ever agree to an embargo that they knew was indefinite. Giving up the right to publish whenever you want for several days, or a week, is one thing. But indefinitely? Sorry, folks. The much-beleaguered press is supposed to be independent of people and institutions they cover.

It makes it even more wrong to move the embargo time after it’s already been announced to reporters. That means the embargoing institution is breaking its part of the agreement, doesn’t it? Why the hell would anyone ever agree to an embargo from such a place again?

But it gets better: It turns out that all of the abstracts were freely available on the ASCB site anyway, making embargoing them a contradiction. (That site has since either become password-protected, or isn’t available anymore. It’s hard to tell from the message on it: “This role closed 12/15/2010 at 11:59:00 PM.”)

I’ve written about that contradiction before, but evidently I have to do it again: You can’t embargo something that’s already in the public domain.

I mean, you can try, but you end up with a broken embargo courtesy of The Sunday Times‘ Jonathan Leake, who is acting well within his rights since he’s never agreed to any embargoes. Or USA Today‘s Steve Sternberg turns the tables on you, which he’s also well within his rights to do. Meanwhile, you anger a lot of reporters who’ve agreed to your embargo — in this case, reporters who were already pretty angry to have the time changed to “indefinite.”

Was I missing something? Nope, Fleischman said:

…all ASCB meeting abstracts are published. They are searchable and accessible to everyone, even writers.

But how can you justify an embargo on something that’s in the public domain?

This hasn’t been an issue–yet–with ASCB. I’m not sure I understand what evil this is supposed to address. No one is disclosing the results of clinical trials at ASCB or similar news with financial impacts.  Is this to keep scientists from stealing data from each other? Or to allow the press to get around the Ingelfinger rule? Most abstracts are short on detail and also there are so many of them at a big meeting that a journalist just skimming through would be hard pressed to find the hot ones. Or if he/she did, it would most likely be because someone tipped the reporter. We’re not talking Wikileaks in the ASCB meeting abstracts.

I tried again. I’m not seeing this, I said. Fleischman:

ASCB uses its press embargo to give science writers a chance to size up a story and to drum up wider interest in basic cell research. Our problem is getting people to pay attention to what we think is exciting basic research and not keeping earth-shaking discoveries under wraps. Major discoveries are made in basic science and discussed at ASCB but it often takes years for the field and then the public to assess the true impact. This really is  an issue for societies where clinical trials or drug results are disclosed. Anyone with the expertise to spot a Wall Street bonanza tip while thumbing through several thousand ASCB meeting abstracts would a) be a scientific genius and b) thus more likely to go about it in a more efficient way.

But I wasn’t complaining about the embargo itself, although I really appreciate Fleischman acknowledging that institutions use embargoes for their own purposes. Why not just make everything password-protected and embargoed until it’s presented at the conference, as the European Society of Human Genetics does now that they’ve seen the error of their ways?

Password-protected abstracts would be a awful for ASCB. Again, we need every tool we can find to make both our meeting and subject more accessible to scientists, and hopefully to the public. I agree that institutions use embargoes for their own particular goals but science needs to be more open, not less so. Actually I find it depressing that the genetics folks have sequestered their abstracts.

So make everything open. Stop embargoing abstracts. Send reporters tips on what you think are newsworthy ones. They’ll appreciate it, and they’ll probably end up covering those anyway. That’s what an EORTC-NCI-AACR symposium did recently, with a a policy I applauded.

I’m just not sure I understand how an embargo is consistent with making science more open. I’m happy to have a debate over whether embargoes are good or bad for accuracy and all of that, but arguing that they’re good for openness seems pretty impossible. If openness is your goal, end the embargo.

This gives me a lot of reason to wonder whether ASCB, and these authors, are actually about openness at all. Maybe they were trying to tell us something with that “Brokeback Mitochondria” theme. After all, that’s all about secrecy.

Um, hate to mention it, ASCB, but that didn’t end well.

Written by Ivan Oransky

December 17, 2010 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. I agree that press tips are probably the way to go, especially in concert with their press conferences, which are meant to give reporters access to the scientists involved in the work and probably still give the ASCB organizers about the same level of control over a story as an embargo. Few reputable sites would publish based on presser alone, and these stories weren’t so earth shattering that less reputable sources would feel moved to stumble out with unsourced reporting.

    I like John and appreciated his candor in explaining the situation to me.

    They got burned by the Ingelfinger rule this year (or at least the scientists’ lack of foresight in considering it). And the appropriate action was to cancel the press conferences. If the work wasn’t embargoed in the first place, there would have been no need for an indefinite embargo.

    And for what it’s worth, ‘brokeback mitochondria’ wasn’t the theme of the meeting, but a promotional poster for their annual celldance awards — which give out prize money to the best cell biology focused movies. You’ll see the poster is pun-laden.

    Brendan Maher

    December 20, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    • Aha! Now I get it. My confusion arose when I saw it on the back of the press kit, without any explanation. Thanks for the explanation, and again for the tip, Brendan.


      December 20, 2010 at 2:01 pm

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