Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Can a comic book break an embargo? A case study involving Hanny’s Voorwerp

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The embargo on a lovely little narrative about a citizen astronomer is lifting as this post goes live. Here are the relevant parts of an ESA (European Space Agency)/Hubble press release about the discoveries, which:

…are the latest finds in an ongoing probe of Hanny’s Voorwerp (Hanny’s Object in Dutch). It is named after Hanny van Arkel, the Dutch schoolteacher who discovered the ghostly structure in 2007 while participating in the online Galaxy Zoo project. Galaxy Zoo enlists the public to help classify more than a million galaxies catalogued in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The project has expanded to include Galaxy Zoo: Hubble, in which the public is asked to assess tens of thousands of galaxies in deep imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope.

In the sharpest view yet of Hanny’s Voorwerp, Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys have uncovered star birth in a region of the green object that faces the spiral galaxy IC 2947, located about 650 million light-years from Earth. Radio observations have shown an outflow of gas arising from the galaxy’s core. The new Hubble images reveal that the galaxy’s gas is interacting with a small region of Hanny’s Voorwerp, which is collapsing and forming stars. The youngest stars are a couple of million years old.

The greenish Voorwerp is visible because a searchlight beam of light from the galaxy’s core has illuminated it. This beam came from a quasar — a bright, energetic object that is powered by a black hole. The quasar is thought to have turned off less than 200 000 years ago.

The find is being described by the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa’s Bill Keel at a 12:45 p.m. (local time) press conference at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Seattle.

But should it be embargoed? As Daniel Fischer tweeted on Saturday:

@suthers I find it more interesting that the main HST result – the triggered star formation in the Voorwerp – was disclosed in the comic!

If you go to page 30 of this Zooniverse/Galaxy Zoo comic book, you’ll find the discovery. (The whole comic book is charming, by the way, and worth the read. It includes a storyline about getting to print first, which should resonate with Embargo Watch readers.)

I checked in ESA/Hubble public information officer Oli Usher, who responded:

The timing of this release wasn’t decided by us – it’s determined by Bill Keel presenting his new observations of Hanny’s Voorwerp to the AAS meeting on Monday.

We do however aim as a matter of policy to make all our releases available under embargo around 2 days before publication, regardless of their content.

As to whether there is a new discovery here or not – we are publishing this as a picture release (not a science release), so the question of whether there is new science or not doesn’t arise. The issue is rather whether or not the picture is new. (It is.)

Usher then suggested I get in touch with the Space Telescope Science Institute, which was working on a longer release presenting more of the science. I tried, but didn’t hear back.

Usher closed his email with this:

I understand that embargoes are a controversial issue, and we do regularly discuss our policy on this. We’re always interested in hearing views and arguments about whether we should do things differently. Unfortunately I don’t think we can keep everybody happy all of the time.

True enough. But I have to say I’m pretty happy when someone takes the time to respond thoughtfully and explain his rationale.

So can a comic book break an embargo? Soft call, I’d have to say. There’s another part of this I really can’t understand, though, which is that the AAS insists on making its abstracts freely available but embargoed. I asked them about this policy in October, and never heard back.

Maybe I’ll ask Hanny van Arkel to look for that rationale. She seems pretty good at finding things.


Written by Ivan Oransky

January 10, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. It’s taken me a while after the press release to get around to a response, but it may be worth chiming in. For astronomy results, much of the rationale I’ve heard for embargos from a funding agency (as opposed to, say, Nature or Science) is that many media outlets have a better chance of picking up the story while it’s still “news”, so dribbling it out without the backing of the STScI name would be less effective. We did worry a little bit about the comic, but funding and opening-event timetables constrained us to get it done first. I was conflicted about this whole issue at the outset, because we had made a point of talking about much of the early work as we were doing it, in the very public Galaxy Zoo forum and blog sites. For the sake of wider exposure (and potentially attracting more people to try out citizen science) we decided to honor an embargo when the HST results came out, resulting in my writing what may have been a slightly anguished blog post explaining why we weren’t showing the images as soon as we had them processed. In the event, we did make enough of a splash to see the image on Letterman’s monologue that night. Old media, meet new media, and both of you meet newer media – hey, stop that, all of you play nice!

    Bill Keel

    January 24, 2011 at 11:18 am

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