Does a tweet break an embargo? A case study involving the BMJ, autism, vaccines, and an alleged hoax
(Full disclosure: Mnookin is a friend of mine from college.)
Not surprisingly, that generated a fair number of retweets, from some pretty prominent science writers. After all, it’s a pretty explosive charge. According to a BMJ press release, the journal’s editor, Fiona Godlee, says:
“the MMR scare was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud” and that such “clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare.”
Only one problem: Those articles were embargoed until a minute after midnight UK time Friday, or in other words as this post goes live. Mnookin had tweeted more than 24 hours before that, something at least one person, Joe Rojas-Burke, reminded him of on Twitter:
Mnookin quickly realized his mistake, and admitted it publicly:
He even wondered if he could, or should, delete the offending tweet:
I was wondering how the BMJ would handle this. I know Mnookin well enough to know that if he says this was unintentional, it was unintentional.
But given the firestorm that erupts whenever anything involving autism and vaccines appears — particularly something as devastating as these charges — I figured the anti-vaccine movement would jump all over the story, which would lead the journal to lift the embargo early.
Turns out they didn’t, and the BMJ didn’t lift the embargo early. That’s despite the fact that Mnookin did the right thing and let them know about the tweet immediately. In response to a query from Embargo Watch, BMJ Group Press Officer Emma Dickinson said by email:
I’ve spoken to Seth. This was posted in error and, given the lack of detail, as far as we are concerned, the embargo still stands.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, in retrospect, or at least not about the BMJ holding firm. There’s precedent for advocates posting stories about a new study before the embargo lifts — witness this incident involving a study about autism rates in Pediatrics in late 2009. So the fact that they didn’t this time was just luck of the draw.
But even in that case, the journal didn’t lift the embargo. (The episode led the Association of Health Care Journalists — where I’m on the board of directors — to lodge a complaint with several federal agencies, and Pediatrics.)
I can see where Dickinson is coming from. Mnookin said very little, and didn’t have anything to link to, so there weren’t any details.
That was true when he tweeted about the story again about 45 minutes before the embargo lifted to announce he would be on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, where, to make this even more convoluted in the interests of full disclosure, my wife works.
As it turns out, CNN posted a story about 20 minutes before the scheduled embargo. In an exchange on Twitter, Nick Valencia (@CNNValencia) told me that CNN did not break an embargo because PR Newswire had sent out a response to the study earlier. But that link went to a “story not found” page until 7:00 p.m., when the embargo lifted. It’s now live again.
And when I did the same exact thing Mnookin did in 2009, another journal was very understanding and didn’t lift their embargo early.
Still, it’s also true that “elaborate hoax” is an explosive term for BMJ to be throwing around, and could have whipped up a frenzy. If it were me running the press office, I probably would have lifted the embargo early. But I admit I’m not much more than 60/40 on it.
Maybe Embargo Watch readers have other ideas.
Update, 10:45 a.m. Eastern, 1/6/10: In fact, Embargo Watch readers do have other ideas. Sally Church reminded me of another recent broken embargo involving Twitter. In that case, the American Association for Cancer Research broke their own embargo in a tweet, but quickly lifted the embargo early. That was the right call, says Sally (and me).