Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

EULAR suffers an “embargo break” because their abstracts are freely available online

with 4 comments

A news outlet allegedly broke an embargo last month on an abstract being presented at the European League Against Rheumatism (EULAR) next week. According to a notice on the EULAR site:

The EULAR abstracts have recently been subject to a serious embargo breach by a media outlet.

EULAR treats all breaches with the utmost seriousness and the offending party has been suspended from participation in the upcoming EULAR Congress 2011, London, including withdrawal of access to all related Press Office Services.

All media are reminded to strictly adhere to the EULAR abstracts embargo regulations, whereby no information may be reproduced before 00.01 Central European Time on Wednesday 25 May 2011.

So who broke the embargo and got punished? A representative from Cohn & Wolfe, the PR firm handling media relations for the conference, told Embargo Watch they “made a decision not to broadcast the outlet.”

Based on Google News and Google Realtime searches, however, it appears that it was an April 21st story about Pfizer’s tofacitinib by Dow Jones that EULAR is talking about: “4 Deaths Reported In Study Of Experimental Pfizer Arthritis Drug.” The reporter on that story referred me to Dow Jones corporate communications, who said:

We do not discuss the details of our reporting process.

If it was in fact Dow Jones that broke this embargo, I can’t blame them. That’s because the tofacitinib abstract, along with thousands of others being presented at EULAR next week, went online in April, freely available to anyone who went looking.

Wait, an embargo broken because abstracts were freely available? That never happens! Well, except for earlier this week. And last year. And oh, in March at EASL, for whom Cohn & Wolfe just so happens to also doing media relations. (I raised questions in that EASL post about whether it’s a conflict of interest for big PR firms that represent companies whose sponsored research is being presented a conference to also do media relations for that conference.)

What makes this even more exasperating for Embargo Watch — which has been pleading with scientific societies to do away with “freely available but embargoed” since it was born — is that EULAR’s embargo policy is just ridiculous:

Accepted abstracts are published in a special supplement to the “Annals of Rheumatic Diseases – The EULAR Journal” at the congress (the “Abstract Book”). In addition, they are made available on the EULAR website approximately one month before the congress for informational purposes of the delegates. Information contained in abstracts may not be released until 00:01 hour of the opening day of the congress (time zone of the congress city).

Academic institutions, private organisations and companies, whose value may be influenced by information contained in an abstract, may issue a press release to coincide with the availability of an abstract on the EULAR website. However, EULAR requires that information going beyond that contained in the abstract, such as discussion of the abstract, presentation of data or other details that will be presented at the congress, is under embargo as outlined above. Violation of the embargo may result in the abstract being withdrawn from the congress and/or other measures deemed appropriate.

It is not considered a violation of this policy if an abstract or information thereof is presented elsewhere, if acceptance is still pending at the time of the regular abstract submission deadline (usually end of January).

It is the responsibility of the submitting author to inform interested parties about this policy.

If you missed it, read that second paragraph again:

Academic institutions, private organisations and companies, whose value may be influenced by information contained in an abstract, may issue a press release to coincide with the availability of an abstract on the EULAR website. However, EULAR requires that information going beyond that contained in the abstract, such as discussion of the abstract, presentation of data or other details that will be presented at the congress, is under embargo as outlined above.

The ATS tried this “report on the abstract but don’t ask any questions” silliness earlier this week; see how that turned out? And the FDA tried it earlier this year. I didn’t go to journalism school, but I teach at one. There’s a reason it’s called the Arthur L. Carter Institute for Journalism at New York University, and not the Arthur L. Carter Institute for Stenography at New York University.

I asked EULAR and Cohn & Wolfe for comment on how they could justify this policy. The Cohn & Wolfe rep told me they would try, but that it’s a very busy time and it was unlikely I’d hear back right away.

So in the meantime, I’ll just repeat myself: This is ridiculous. I don’t blame Dow Jones, or whomever the actual “breaker” was, one iota. Why should anyone wait to report on something that is freely available? Wall Street sure won’t.

It’s time for reporters to stop agreeing to any embargo policy that requires them to keep mum on a publicly available document. In this case, I’m not even quite sure what benefit reporters get out of the bargain.

And one that allows press releases to go out, but bars reporters from talking to abstract authors? That’s not just ridiculous, it’s insulting.

Written by Ivan Oransky

May 20, 2011 at 11:35 am

4 Responses

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  1. Spot on, Ivan.

    Jon Gardner

    May 20, 2011 at 11:56 am

  2. Let’s not fight this. Go the other way. “The institute requires that all reporters avoid using the letters “c” and “e” when discussing this story. Also, no prepositions.”

    Ed Yong

    May 20, 2011 at 4:18 pm

  3. Ivan, Thanks for your work.

    Maybe I have something wrong? — but an issue occurred to me, based only on information in this piece.

    Re: “Academic institutions, private organisations and companies, whose value may be influenced by information contained in an abstract, … ”

    If I (my organisation) think the information in the Abstract is important for a clinician or group then, by communicating that info to them, my value is going to be influenced by the information contained in the Abstract. (I might even have an obligation to communicate it?).

    Apparently, I can give them the ref to the abstract, but can not say/write any of the contents, until the conference starts?

    David VH

    May 22, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    • Hi David, thanks for your question. I think your interpretation is right. As I’ve said, this is a ridiculous policy.

      ivanoransky

      May 23, 2011 at 6:40 pm


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