Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

We asked for it, you got it: NEJM to provide draft abstracts to give reporters more time

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Regular readers of Embargo Watch will have noticed that we have been tough on the New England Journal of Medicine.

We’ve criticized it for an absurdly short embargo time of 49 minutes, for example. And most recently, last month, we took it to task for waiting until 24 hours before a study was to be released to send it to reporters, instead of just releasing drafts that were clearly available to a hospital press office.

I asked the staff then — as I did last April — to “send page proofs, plain text, or some other not-quite-done-and-dusted version of studies,” in the name of living up to its embargo policy’s stated goal of helping reporters “to learn about a topic, gather relevant information, and interview authors and other experts so they can accurately report complex research findings.”

Well, the staff listened. On Tuesday, the journal sent this message to its media subscribers:

We are making the DRAFTS of these abstracts available to you in advance of sending the complete article under embargo so that you may begin to prepare your stories.  The draft abstracts are available immediately for your embargoed access on the NEJM Media Center.  The final, complete articles will be posted under embargo on the NEJM Media Center at the times noted below.  The complete articles will include the final versions of the abstracts.

The embargo on the first study, on an early-stage trial for Duchenne’s  muscular dystrophy, lifted about 24 hours later, at 5 p.m. Eastern yesterday. The final files weren’t going to be ready until 1 p.m. yesterday, however, as NEJM noted, so instead of waiting and only giving reporters four hours, the journal sent out an abstract that allowed them to get started.

I asked NEJM for comment on the move:

Yes, this is the first time we’ve posted drafts of abstracts for the media under embargo.  We are continually facing short production schedules which result in less time for the media, and have been trying to find ways to improve that situation.  We’ve offered the drafts of these abstracts in part due to your suggestion that we make less-than-final versions of articles available.  While we feel that providing the complete article before it is finalized is risky, we hope that having the abstract and author contact information in hand earlier will help reporters to begin planning their stories.  We will try to provide drafts of abstracts again whenever we are publishing research articles with tight deadlines.

To me, this is a big step forward. It allows the NEJM to keep to the 5 p.m Eastern release schedule it prefers, but also gives reporters more time to, well, actually report. I don’t actually think there are risks to releasing content that isn’t quite yet finalized, as long as it’s marked that way, but I can see NEJM’s point of view. So I appreciate that they’re doing this.

Kudos, NEJM, you’ve earned a spot in the Embargo Watch Honor Roll.


Written by Ivan Oransky

March 24, 2011 at 11:30 am

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