Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Top Embargo Watch posts of 2010, and a short wish list for 2011

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Bronze statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, by sculptor Lorenzo Coullaut Valera, at the Plaza de España in Madrid. Photo by Zaqarbal via Wikimedia

At the risk of committing self-plagiarism, I’m doing the same thing here that I just did on Embargo Watch’s sister blog, Retraction Watch. (I’m even using the same picture.)

Embargo Watch is the older sibling, having launched in late February. It too has kept me busy, with 167 posts, also about four per week.

Here are the top five posts, followed by three wishes:

  1. Why write a blog on embargoes?
  2. Science gets it (mostly) wrong again: My take on the NASA astrobiology paper
  3. An arsenic bacteria postmortem: NASA responds, tries to pit blogs vs. “credible media organizations”
  4. Now it can be told: My take on the Science hominin missing link study embargo
  5. Nobelist Linda Buck retracts two studies on olfactory networks — and the news is embargoed

The only thing linking them is that they all involve papers in Science — at least, all but the first one. But that doesn’t really tell us much, since two of them are about the same paper.

Still, it’s probably a good opportunity to say that Science has done better, at least according to Embargo Watch, as the year has gone on. Even when I thought the journal didn’t handle things exactly as would have, I was very impressed with Ginger Pinholster’s ability to look at what Science might have done differently on the arsenic bacteria paper. (I would hardly say the same thing of NASA.)

Now to three wishes for 2011:

  1. An end to “freely available but embargoed.” This just keeps coming up, most recently with the American Society for Cell Biology. How scientific societies think they can embargo material once they’ve posted it online — whether as conference abstracts or as advance online journal papers — still mystifies me. Some societies have seen the error of their ways, and I look forward to more doing so in 2011.
  2. An end to the short embargo parade. By “short” here, I mean under 24 hours. Maybe that’s too low a bar, but as I’ve said before, we have to start somewhere, and a day is the length of time some journals’ embargo policies say they should give reporters. I’d like to say that with the exception of the New England Journal of Medicine, most journals seem to have abandoned this ridiculous practice. But it’s too soon to tell.
  3. More honest and transparent justifications for embargo policies. Here’s my suggested language, and rationale, from a November post:

Our embargo policy is in place to ensure as much coverage of research [in our journal/by our society’s members] as possible.

This may divert attention from other important issues in science and medicine. Provided we have a reasonable interval between the release of material and the embargo time, it may also help reporters do a better job covering these studies.

However, policies that bar pre-publication publicity of scientists’ work can also have a chilling effect on the spread of scientific knowledge.

I’m taking aim here at short embargoes, the Ingelfinger Rule, and the effect that the embargo system has on enterprising journalism. (When it comes to that last point, journalists need to look in the mirror just as much as journals do, and this is a way to help them do that.) As I’ve noted before, there’s nothing wrong with self-interest. It’s when journals and societies aren’t upfront about that self-interest that I start to doubt their transparency.

As I wrote at Retraction Watch today (I’ve subbed “Embargo” for “Retraction”):

Thanks to everyone who read Embargo Watch, who sent feedback and criticism, or tipped us off to good items. We couldn’t have done it without you. Happy New Year.


Written by Ivan Oransky

December 31, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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