Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

It’s Complicated: The Lancet debuts a new embargo system

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Yesterday, The Lancet launched a new embargo system they’re trying for the month of February. In an email that went to the journal’s press list last week, media relations manager Tony Kirby explained that the changes were in response to a survey of 250 journalists last September. The highlights?

…significant numbers felt we sent out too many press release e-mails each week, and that embargo time was not always enough.

I’ve certainly noticed a lot of emails from The Lancet’s press office, for the main journal, for The Lancet Oncology, The Lancet Neurology, and The Lancet Infectious Diseases. And I’ve commented on some short Lancet embargoes, although I have to say I haven’t noticed any particularly short ones lately. They even apologized for “short notice” on a 28-hour hour embargo.

The journal has also changed an unusual policy I’ve called attention to, namely having one embargo time — 7:01 p.m. Eastern — for everyone except the east coast of the U.S., whose embargo was 6:30 p.m.

So I’m glad to see the press office responding further to feedback and concerns with this month’s new system. But the new system is quite complicated, which may cause its own problems. Here are the guts of Kirby’s note:

NUMBER OF RELEASES

We are reducing the number of press releases and press release e-mails we send out. There will be now be two press releases per week, one Tuesday around 10am (Eastern US time) and one Friday around 10am (Eastern US time). There may be short delays beyond midday on occasion, but that will be the intention. Thus you will routinely only receive two mail-outs from me per week instead of the usual five (sometimes more!).

The Tuesday release will contain any press release items that have (UK time) embargoes of 1830 New York time on Weds, Thurs, Fri and if appropriate Sat (although Sat 1830EST embargoes are very rare!). This will mean more time for journalists to prepare stories.

It will also contain the (latest) contents list for that week’s issue, but no longer the cover. Should you require any additional items from the weekly Lancet issue contents list that are not press released (and have not already gone online), then these will be available from around Wednesday early New York time.

So when you receive a Tuesday release, it could contain three items, one embargoed to Wed 1830EST, one embargoed to Thurs 1830EST, one embargoed to Fri1830EST. Or maybe one embargoed to Weds, two embargoed to Thurs. It will vary. But the main point it will be one release on a Tuesday to cover Thursday to Sunday embargoed items.

Of course, this means one release will contain multiple embargoes, so these marked on the release so make things very clear.

The release on Friday will contain any press released items with embargoes for the following 1830H EST Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday.

Again the Friday release could contain a mixture of items embargoed to different days. One on each of the three days where possible.

Under the current system, releases with a Sunday 1830 EST embargo are issued Thursday, but this will now be early Friday, thus giving journalists slightly less time for the Sunday embargo. However, we will plan things so there are no ‘blockbuster’ stories on the 1830H EST Sunday embargo wherever possible.

Occasionally, there will need to be multiple releases embargoed to a particular day; but there could also be times when a release could be received for example on a Tuesday that only contains Weds and Thurs embargoed releases, with nothing on the Friday (or any other combination like that).

Regarding the different journals, any Tuesday or Friday press release can contain any mixture of any content (Articles/Reviews/Editorials etc) from any of our four titles (Lancet, Lancet Neurology, Lancet Infectious Diseases, Lancet Oncology). Again, this will be clearly marked. But overall, the amount of press released content will drop substantially.

Following all that? If so, make sure you’ve got it all down, since there are exceptions:

EXCEPTIONS

There will be exceptions to the general Tuesday/Friday system:

  • Papers that we are holding a press conference on, especially those with a high risk of embargo break if they go out too early. Individual decisions will be made about these; they will be included in the Tues/Fri release wherever possible. But it is more likely that the current system will continue with press conference related papers only released a short time (less than one day) before the embargo lifts)
  • Special ‘for immediate release’ statements in response to events or as deemed necessary by our Editors
  • Releases for Lancet Series. These will be included in a Tues or Fri Update if possible (and we anticipate this will be possible: however how far in advance we issue Series releases will still be decided on a case by case basis)
  • Papers tied to presentation at meetings. These papers are often updated up to the very last minute and thus it may not be possible to include these in the Tuesday or Friday update. But if this is possible, they will be included. If not, you may receive an additional release, for example: ‘European Society of Cardiology meeting Special Release’

My take: Good intentions, high likelihood of unintended consequences. A system this complicated, particularly the part about releases with multiple embargo times, would seem more likely to lead to accidental embargo breaks.

Kirby said the journal will review the system in late February and decide whether to make it permanent. We’ll be keeping an eye on it, too. There have been already been some hiccups. I won’t go into details for obvious reasons, but the press office felt the need to apologize for the length of the first release to go out under the new system, and then had to send a follow-up message with a link they had forgotten to include.

Written by Ivan Oransky

February 2, 2011 at 10:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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