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