Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Wait, Guardian bloggers shouldn’t get access to Nature’s embargoed materials? A guest post by Martin Robbins

with 17 comments

One of the issues that comes up regularly on Embargo Watch is who gets access to embargoed materials. Earlier this year, for example, EurekAlert suspended io9.com’s access, then reinstated it. Today, I’m pleased to present a guest post from Martin Robbins, a UK-based researcher and science writer for outlets including The Guardian who also edits The Lay Scientist. Below, Robbins describes a frustrating experience trying to obtain access to embargoed studies at Nature — a journal for whom he’s written.

courtesy Martin Robbins

It was February 2010, and Parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee was about to launch a devastating report on homeopathy. I wanted to attend the press briefing, coordinated by the Science Media Centre (SMC) — a reasonable request since I had reported on the topic extensively for the Guardian as a freelancer – but I was a blogger, no matter how much Guardian lipstick I wore, and they did not want bloggers attending. It wasn’t until I aroused a small-but-indignant mob on Twitter that they backed down and sent me an invite.

That summer I had an opportunity to question SMC head Fiona Fox at a science journalism conference in London. I asked her about their attitude to bloggers, and she told me that in essence they didn’t know who bloggers were, or whether they could trust them.  Let bloggers in to press briefings, she suggested, and you could end up with all sorts of strange people turning up. I protested:

But you already let the Daily Express in!

That fell on deaf ears.

In August I moved my blog to its current home at The Guardian, and smugly assumed that such problems were now behind me. I would declare:

I’m Martin freaking Robbins, and I write for the mother-flipping Guardian. Give me your damned information.

It was going pretty well, until I wrote to the press office at Nature last month.

Nature has approached the blogosphere with the stilted enthusiasm of an awkward first date, sending out a flurry of mixed and confused signals. At times they seem happy and eager, setting up their own home for bloggers on the Nature Network and telling everyone, “It’s good to blog!” Then, just as everything seems to be going well, the atmosphere changes, and we find bloggers quitting in protest at their treatment.

I wrote to them asking to be put on the mailing list for embargoed press releases. The reply that came back wasn’t promising:

We don’t allow bloggers access to embargoed material and I think I’m correct that you are on the Guardian’s science blogs platform?

By coincidence I had just written a feature for Nature, so it seemed that I was good enough to write for them, but not to be put on their mailing list.

After a couple of messages back-and-forth I was accepted (on condition a real Guardian editor vouched for me), but I was curious about their aversion to dealing with bloggers, and asked them to explain further. They told me:

Blogging serves a different purpose from journalism and in this field many bloggers are working scientists. It would be a conflict of interest to tell them what their peers/competitors are publishing while it’s under embargo.

I don’t really understand what they mean by “different purpose from journalism,” and I suspect they don’t either. The sentence simply doesn’t work in the English language – blogging is a medium while journalism is a form of writing, so comparing the two in this way is like saying, “speaking serves a different purpose from poetry.”

It’s boring to have to say this in 2011, but many bloggers are journalists, and many journalists are bloggers.

Many bloggers are also scientists, but then many bloggers are not scientists, which somewhat undermines the invocation of a supposed conflict of interest. It ought to be fairly trivial for press officers familiar with the science blogosphere to identify top bloggers they can deal with who aren’t scientists – the likes of Ed Yong, David Dobbs, or Brian Switek who, as roguish and caddish as they  may seem, are unlikely to go on an embargo-smashing rampage any time soon.

In short, some of Nature’s concerns are valid, but they don’t apply generally to bloggers, and it feels like they’re drawing a line of convenience rather than properly evaluating the online science community and figuring out the best way to engage with it.

These are not isolated cases, but a symptom of an attitude towards the internet that still seems to be prevalent across the realms of science and PR. Bloggers I speak to regularly find themselves confronted with brick walls when they request information, and I can’t write about this without recalling Ed Yong’s infamous exchange last February with the press officer who told him “I think you have all you need for a blog.”

Trust is the most commonly cited issue by PR types I’ve spoken to – as if the web were still some sort of Wild West frontier, rather than the home of some of the best quality science writing now available – but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it’s really all about control. Frasier Fraser Cain put it very well when his publication, University Universe Today, decided to stop playing the embargo game altogether:

Embargoes let the public relations officials decide who’s a journalist and who isn’t. It lets them control who gets secret advanced knowledge of news stories, and who doesn’t. It stacks the deck against bloggers, science fiction reporters, twitterers, and anyone who wants to report interesting stories on science.

On the positive side, it may be that locking bloggers out of the embargo system stops them from trying to compete with coverage of the tiny subset of research that gets picked up by mainstream media, and encourages them to get more creative with the science they cover, leading to more diversity.

But policies biased against bloggers and amateur media limit the immediate coverage of new science to a small, on-message crowd of overworked journalists, who have time to do little more than reprint the release with an extra quote or two and a fancy headline. That’s pretty convenient if you’re a press officer whose aim is to secure widespread coverage of your releases, while avoiding any real scrutiny or challenge. It’s not so good if you want to see open and frank discussion of science in the media.

Nature’s 2009 editorial on bloggingdeclared

our cardinal rule has always been to promote scientific communication

and

suggested that researchers would do well to blog more than they do.

If they’re serious about encouraging more coverage of new scientific research in the blogosphere, then opening up the embargo club would be a useful step.

Written by Ivan Oransky

June 22, 2011 at 10:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

17 Responses

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  1. It’s worth noting that Nature owns Scientific American, a Guardian science blog competitor. Does/will Nature rebuff SciAm bloggers the same way?

    Ricardo Montalban

    June 22, 2011 at 10:51 am

    • Ricardo, yes it’s the same rule for SciAm bloggers.

      Ruth Francis

      June 23, 2011 at 4:59 am

  2. To this day, people are still confused about whether Ars Technica is a blog or news site, but Nature was the first to decide that our writers deserved embargo access. They seem to take things on a case-by-case basis, which is far more flexible than a place like Eurekalert, which has a blanket policy of not allowing access to anyone with an active research career, no matter how much freelance work they do in addition.

    John Timmer

    June 22, 2011 at 10:52 am

  3. Interesting post.
    I write often about the embargo system when I joined the BBC over 20 years ago. Every one of the reasons for its imposition has gone, or is now irrelevant and unjustifiable. The Nature statement about bloggers (who may be scientists) having a conflict of interest if they know what their peers are publishing while it is under embargo is nonsense. It can’t refer to nature’s embargo list which they issue 6 days before publication, as if 6 days makes a difference?
    It is fundamentally unjustifiable that in the internet age, a private company who owns a journal, is able to control, and profit from, the release of research paid for by the taxpayer that should be available freely to all taxpayers.

    David Whitehouse

    June 22, 2011 at 10:58 am

  4. Strange times we’re in. I get access because I was a journalist/writer before I ever blogged. I still feel a bit funny when I’m IDENTIFIED as a blogger; I want to say, “Wait! I have bylines in all these big pubs, did before I ever blogged, and I’m a blogger?” I don’t think of myself that way. I think of myself as a writer who publishes through a bunch of different conduits.

    Which is how it should be. As Zimmer likes to say, Blogging is not a genre. It’s software.

    The National Association of Science Writers recently struggled with this and softened its guidelines, requiring substantial publication and (as before) the recommendation of a couple existing members. Perhaps media organizations like Nature could do the same: show us some clips, but make the main qualification the recommendation of a couple people that already have access. (However “roguish and caddish” we might be.)

    David Dobbs

    June 22, 2011 at 11:05 am

  5. …many bloggers are working scientists. It would be a conflict of interest to tell them what their peers/competitors are publishing while it’s under embargo.

    Whilst this argument superficially seems reasonable, it doesn’t really stand up when you think about it. The fact is that we already know what people in our fields are publishing, through preliminary presentations and discussions at conferences. And given that the research and publication cycle in science operates over timescales of months and years, allowing someone to read a paper a week or two prior to formal publication is hardly going to allow them to scoop it.

    Chris Rowan

    June 22, 2011 at 11:48 am

  6. I agree with David Whitehouse’s comment: “Every one of the reasons for its [embargo system’s] imposition has gone, or is now irrelevant and unjustifiable.” Three months into our abandonment of embargoed releases at Universe Today, we’ve actually had an uptick in traffic and subscribed readers, and the only real differences I’ve noticed in my writing sans embargoes is a greater flexibility in topics and timing, with no frantic scrambling to get something posted as soon as the embargo lifts. And I believe our readers are better off for it.

    (BTW, two minor typos in your article: its Fraser Cain and Universe Today)

    Nancy Atkinson

    June 22, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    • Fixed — thanks!

      ivanoransky

      June 22, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    • I totally agree. It’s been better for Universe Today readers, and it’s better for our writing team. We take the time to consider every news story equally, without the unnatural sense of urgency an embargo carries with it. The only downside is to the journals and people covered by the embargoes, because they’re a smaller component of our story mix.

      Fraser Cain

      June 22, 2011 at 12:35 pm

  7. Will people who are considered journalists by journals by virtue of their access to embargoed material then be subject to media restrictions at conferences? I see problems ahead for science journalism bloggers who do research.

    They can’t have their cake and eat it.

    gimpy

    June 22, 2011 at 12:54 pm

  8. Another aspect I raised many moons ago is that it is not providing one’s outlet the best possible service if one knows about a story, but one has to sit on it for days, weeks even, because it’s under embargo, or in a journal’s pipeline, and publish at the same time as everyone else, including those journalists who make no effort other than subscribe to the embargo tip sheet.

    Journalism is competitive, so it should be. You want your own outlet to be first. It might sound old fashioned to some but scoops are good for journalists, but bad for the journal. (One consequence of embargoes and the internet is that these days there are far fewer good scoops.)

    I know of many fabulous stories that could be published right now. But doing so would cause a heap of trouble for me and for the scientists concerned. It would be no use saying that some of the stories are already in the public domain in the sense that, if one knew where to look, one could find them online.

    David Whitehouse

    June 22, 2011 at 1:13 pm

  9. Trust me, dealing with embargoes isn’t exactly a walk in the park from a university PR perspective either – I’d just like to point out that a broken embargo could cost us the trust of the researchers we work with, or worse, our jobs.

    William Raillant-Clark

    June 22, 2011 at 3:43 pm

  10. I agree with what David Whitehouse is saying about all the fabulous stories we could be writing about, if it weren’t for the strictures placed on both scientists and journalists by the embargo system. I’ve heard some writers snark about New Scientist because they often publish about research that isn’t peer reviewed. But that, to me, is truly the future of science journalism. Yes, there are drawbacks (sometimes you wind up reporting on something that turns out to be bunk). Still, I would rather read about research in process than see yet another regurgitated press release on PhysOrg (love PhysOrg, but c’mon).

    For these reasons, I’m excited to work in a medium that brings writers together with the people who are actually doing research on the ground. Keeping research siloed inside scientific institutions until it’s published is complete rubbish. Science is generally done collaboratively, and blogs allow writers and analysts to become part of that collaboration. Places like Nature are struggling to hold onto a fiefdom that is already lost.

    Annalee Newitz

    June 22, 2011 at 4:16 pm

  11. I agree with Annalee. If you only write about peer reviewed, published research, you are writing about only a sliver of science. Science as a process, science as asking questions, getting things right and wrong, is essential to communicate. It’s ok to write an article that has as its main point “scientists are asking this question.”

    Some journalists say that unless its published it shouldn’t be written about because that’s misleading the public. I maintain that unless science is written about as a process the public will never understand it and maintain the impression that science is about answers and if its published it must be true. We all know that’s not the case.

    Abolishing the embargo system would liberate science JOURNALISM.

    David Whitehouse

    June 22, 2011 at 5:33 pm

  12. Good luck getting scientists to talk about their research before it’s peer reviewed! Some, but not many, are willing to go there…

    William Raillant-Clark

    June 22, 2011 at 7:39 pm

  13. David says, “I maintain that unless science is written about as a process the public will never understand it.”

    And I agree. More “upstream reporting” would be great.

    But I disagree with: “Abolishing the embargo system would liberate science JOURNALISM.”

    The embargo system is one factor here, but (as William has already suggested), the far greater problem here is the Ingelfinger Rule. Ivan’s written about this a lot on this blog (https://embargowatch.wordpress.com/2011/04/01/faculty-of-1000-strikes-a-blow-against-the-ingelfinger-rule/) but the fact is that many scientists will refuse to talk about unpublished work because it jeopardises (or is percevied to jeopardise) their chances of getting into a high-impact journal. I am currently sitting pretty on at least two stories that fall into this bracket. I’d love to talk about them to show science as a process, but I can’t because (a) the scientists in question won’t give me any more than what I’ve got, and (b) they would get irritated and I’d have pissed off some valuable sources.

    Ed Yong

    June 22, 2011 at 8:08 pm

  14. Inglefinger, Embargoes…they are all part of the same thing. Philosophically, morally, it’s wrong that scientists paid by the taxpayer should be put in the position of being intimidated into not talking about their research to a free press because they are held to ransom for the profit of the owners of a private company that runs a journal. Any flavour of journalism, let alone science journalism, cannot truly flourish under such circumstances. Why do we let a private company control the release of scientific information like this? And in the internet age?

    Not only do private companies control the release of scientific information they even ask publicly funded scientists to review papers for free (effectively a cost to the taxpayer.)

    Another thing. As a journalist the most important thing is providing the best service for your outlet, not to be supporters of, or even friends with, the scientific community, even if that does annoy some scientists who think they know how the media works.

    David Whitehouse

    June 23, 2011 at 3:28 am


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