Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Does a tweet break an embargo? A case study involving the BMJ, autism, vaccines, and an alleged hoax

with 4 comments

Yesterday, Seth Mnookin, author of the soon-to-be released Panic Virus, which takes a hard look at the anti-vaccine movement, tweeted the following:

BMJ declares initial #Wakefield #MMR study on #vaccines & #autism “elaborate hoax” (not yet online) #vaxfax

(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:

@RebeccaSkloot @sethmnookin Kinda violating BMJ’s embargo, you guys.

Mnookin quickly realized his mistake, and admitted it publicly:

Didn’t know was 1. Forwarded “Today, the BMJ” announce RT @rojasburke: @RebeccaSkloot @sethmnookin Kinda violating BMJ’s embargo, you guys.

He even wondered if he could, or should, delete the offending tweet:

I know no re-virginizing, but shld I delete tweet…? RT @rojasburke: @RebeccaSkloot @sethmnookin Kinda violating BMJ’s embargo, you guys.

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).


Written by Ivan Oransky

January 5, 2011 at 7:01 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Interesting post, and it does make me wonder if embargos can stand firm in this new age of social media. I’m guilty of RTing Seth as well on that tweet, not realizing it was ahead of an embargo, and while not intentional, it was still a violation. Like you, I can decide whether or not BMJ should have lifted it early, especially on such a controversial topic. But it also supports the whole system of the embargo, and I appreciate the fact that they stood firm on their decision.

    Nancy Cawley Jean

    January 6, 2011 at 8:54 am

  2. A tweet seems very similar to a tease on television, which would be seen as an embargo break. In other words, if a network tagged out of a story by saying, “Tomorrow; a new report says a study on the autism vaccine link was an elaborate hoax,” it would clearly be an embargo. A tweet is a tease to smaller (although with declining viewership, who knows) audience. Embargo: broken. The journal should then lift the release, and “punish” the outlet to level the playing field. The broader and critical question then becomes, at what point do mini-breaks make embargoes no longer worth their (traditionally-held) value?

    David Sampson

    January 6, 2011 at 10:54 am

  3. If a tweet includes the journal, topic and main point of an embargoed story, how could it not be a break?

    Elaine Schattner

    January 6, 2011 at 10:57 am

  4. Yes, the tweet breaks the embargo. If Mnookin didn’t get the press release from BMJ, then I broke the embargo by alerting him to the story via email.


    January 6, 2011 at 12:56 pm

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