Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Press officer admits “unwise decision” embargoing already available tarantula-silk paper

with one comment

A reporter at The Naked Scientists found a paper last week in the Journal of Experimental Biology (JEB) that looked interesting. But as producer Ben Valsler related to the Association of British Science Writers listserv — email reproduced with Valsler’s permission — something odd happened on the way to that radio spot:

I’ve just been asked to delay publication of a story based on this paper – http://jeb.biologists.org/content/214/11/1874.abstract.  A colleague wrote a draft article (to cover on Sunday evening’s radio show), approached the journal for a copy to fact check, and was told:

“I’ll send the paper next week as we are asking media organizations to hold coverage until Monday on this story.  NO one else is covering it before then.”

I obviously don’t want to engender any bad feeling with the journal, so I won’t publish it until Monday, but I can’t help but be confused – any writer with a subscription to the journal, or an academic who also blogs,  could have found it and covered it without ever knowing this embargo is in place.

Their embargo policy stated on their website is this…

“JEB enforces a strict embargo policy and requires all journalists to respect the embargo, which is set at 00:15 Eastern Standard Time on the day of publication and is stated clearly in the email press release and on press releases posted on EurekAlert!. Authors are also free to arrange press coverage through their own institution’s press office, but we request that the embargo is respected.”

…but as I can’t find the Eurekalert press release I’m at a loss as to how I would have discovered the date.

I know embargoes have been something of a hot topic here, so what is the general opinion on this sort of thing?  Am I just grumbling and should just put up with it?

Well, here at Embargo Watch, we don’t think Valsler should just put up with it. And sometimes, when we write about such “available but embargoed” situations, institutions change their policies. That’s one way to end up on the Embargo Watch Honor Roll.

It turns out that Valsler wasn’t the only journalist who got this response from the JEB. So did science blogger extraordinaire Ed Yong. Here’s an email Yong sent Valsler, also reprinted with permission:

I asked the journal’s press office for a copy of the paper on Friday and received it with the request that I hold off on writing about it until 5am because the BBC wanted to cover it on Monday and have asked everyone else to hold off coverage until then.

In an email to me, Yong explained that the journal

publishes lay summaries of its papers with every new issue, around 4-5 for each one. [News and Views editor] Kathryn [Phillips Knight] writes these and they’re great. These came out with the paper on Wednesday. I sent my email request on Thursday, was asked to hold off till Monday, and was told that a press release would go out late Sunday/early Monday. The press release ended up being exactly the same as the summary on Wednesday.

Sure enough, the BBC’s story showed up this morning just after 5 a.m. UK time. Yong’s post went live several hours later. (He tells me that the delay was “not because I was acquiescing to the Beeb, but because I only managed to write the thing on Sunday.”)

I asked Phillips Knight to explain her rationale. She responded yesterday:

This is an unusual situation and will not happen again. A media organisation requested that I hold back coverage and in retrospect I made an unwise decision.

It will not happen again.

I am relatively new to dealing with the press and so I am making mistakes, which I am learning from.

There may have been a misunderstanding, however, according to BBC reporter Victoria Gill, who tells Embargo Watch she didn’t ask for an embargo:

I wasn’t actually working with the press office – I just kept them posted about the fact I was coming to visit the researchers and about when the story would run. I think there has been confusion between holding back a press release and an embargo. I’m sure there was no ill intent. They were probably just trying to give me a chance to get my story out.

What to make of all of this? First, we appreciate Phillips’ Knights’ candor, and are glad to hear this sort of thing won’t happen again. But we need to split some hairs here.

It’s one thing to give a reporter an exclusive, and we’ve noted before that we have no problem with those. In fact, when Steve Sternberg of USA Today turned the embargo tables and did the same thing to Pediatrics, we cheered. No one called Pediatrics about the available paper, so Sternberg kept his scoop.

But there’s a subtle but important difference in this case, which is why we agree with Phillips Knight that this was an unwise decision on the JEB’s part. You can’t give a reporter an exclusive while asking everyone else to uphold an embargo — particularly when those other reporters call to ask about the paper because it’s freely available on your site.

We also agree with acknowledging mistakes and learning from them.

Update, 11:05 a.m. Eastern, 5/16/11: I’ve replaced “Phillips” with “Knight” following Ed Yong’s comment below. “Kathryn Phillips” was the news and views editor of the JEB until sometime in 2009. Since then, “Kathryn Knight” has been in the job. They share an email address, which is why I was confused, and I have a hunch they’re the same person, just with a new name. While I wait to confirm, it’s clear that it’s Knight, not Phillips. Apologies to Knight and Embargo Watch readers.

Written by Ivan Oransky

May 16, 2011 at 8:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. While not that relevant to this particular incident (which you have described very fairly), I would like to say that Kathryn Knight has always been a pleasure to work with and writes wonderful stories that add a lot of colour to what’s in the paper.

    Ed Yong

    May 16, 2011 at 10:33 am

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