Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Three card monte? American Thoracic Society conference abstracts are fair game except for some — but don’t ask which

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The American Thoracic Society (ATS) has been the subject of several Embargo Watch posts. Generally, my sense is that they’ve moved in the right direction, away from a “freely available but embargoed” policy. But a tipster called me this week to suggest I look into the policy for the ATS meeting now underway in Denver. All of the conference abstracts were available online, said the caller, but ATS was saying some of them were embargoed.

So I investigated — and learned about a policy the likes of which I’ve never seen before.

First, I asked ATS whether the freely available abstracts were in fact embargoed, since I saw nothing on the site to indicate they were. The response:

More than 5,000 abstracts are indeed online.  Of those, we work with about 30 researchers in advance of the conference to produce press releases.  We ask that this small portion (~0.6%) of researchers agree that they will not discuss their findings with the media unless the media agree to respect the embargo.  The abstracts themselves are fair game.

I asked for clarification. Does that mean all but the 30 selected abstracts are embargoed?

All of the abstracts are technically not embargoed.  We ask about 30 researchers to not speak with the media about their results until their presentataion at the ATS, unless the reporters themselves agree to refrain from publication until the presentation time.

OK, so I understood the policy, which is a strange one, but had ATS explained it to reporters covering the conference? The only ATS embargo policy I could find — and which I’ve written about before, applauding a change they’d made to get rid of “freely available but embargoed” — makes no reference to conference abstracts. And how would reporters know they were looking at an abstract whose corresponding authors would refuse to speak to them when they called? The abstract site doesn’t seem to differentiate abstracts from one another.

No, we do not treat them any differently than the others.

Well, OK then. Sorry, ATS, but this feels a bit like playing three-card monte.

ATS is correct to point out that more than 99% of their abstracts are in fact freely available, and they’ve done the right thing by making those free game for coverage. But this “report on the abstract but you’re not allowed to talk to anyone about it” — especially when reporters apparently don’t find out about those restrictions until they’ve seen the abstract and tried to call someone — is the kind of thing the FDA tried earlier this year.

That led me to wonder whether the FDA was looking for stenographers. It also led the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) — where, in full disclosure, I’m on the board of directors — to ask the FDA to reconsider. To be clear, I don’t speak for the AHCJ here, and I haven’t broached this subject with my board colleagues. Plus the ATS is not a federal agency, so they have more leeway than a public body would.

Still, I’ll ask, as an individual, that ATS reconsider this policy for its next meeting. It’s cumbersome, a little too double-secret, and it doesn’t seem to serve the free flow of scientific information. It’s backtracking on the end of “freely available but embargoed” at ATS.

I’ll leave the final word to a quote on an ATS page promoting the meeting:

The ATS conference is the first place in the world for research—the place where you learn about data before it has been published.

Written by Ivan Oransky

May 17, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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