Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Pinch me: NEJM-owned publication breaks Lancet embargo

with 2 comments

It’s the journal equivalent of a newspaper war.

This afternoon, at about 2 p.m. Eastern, an Embargo Watch tipster sent a story from Journal Watch’s Physician’s First Watch, a website billed as “from the publishers of the New England Journal of Medicine.” The story began:

Pulse oximetry in asymptomatic newborns can detect unsuspected heart defects, according to a Lancet study.

This ran at the end of it:

[Editors’ note: Lancet has not yet posted this article in the Online First section of its website. We link to that section, where the article should appear shortly.]

Well, no, the Lancet hadn’t posted the article yet, because, um, it was still embargoed. That was true until 6:30 p.m. Eastern, which is when this post is scheduled to go live.

I’m pretty sure the NEJM is familiar with embargoes. They certainly show up on Embargo Watch frequently enough. You’d think that the fact that a study wasn’t live yet might have triggered a question about whether it was embargoed.

Apparently not. After queries from Embargo Watch and another news organization about whether this was a break, The Lancet press office contacted Journal Watch and asked them to take down the item. The site doesn’t seem to have done so.

Meanwhile, even though the story had been live since at least 7 a.m. Eastern, when a Journal Watch email went out including it, The Lancet said it would maintain the embargo and sanction anyone else who broke it.

The Lancet was none too pleased by this break, as you’d imagine. It appears likely that Journal Watch will face sanctions.

But wait.

In February, The Lancet started a new embargo system that involved sending emails that included papers with different embargoes. That’s atypical, and I predicted at the time:

My take: Good intentions, high likelihood of unintended consequences. A system this complicated, particularly the part about releases with multiple embargo times, would seem more likely to lead to accidental embargo breaks.

The email including the embargoed release of the pulse oximetry study did in fact include another study embargoed for yesterday.

THE LANCET: Press Release


Text messaging improves management of malaria treatment by health workers (Embargo 1830H New York time Weds 3 August)

UK study shows newborn oxygen screening test improves detection of congenital heart disease and should be part of routine care (PulseOx trial) (Embargo 1830H New York time Thurs 4 August)

The email continues with the text messaging/malaria release, then this:

UK study shows newborn oxygen screening test improves detection of congenital heart disease and should be part of routine care (PulseOx trial)

** Embargo 1830H New York time Thurs 4 August**

A quick, non-invasive test that measures blood oxygen levels in newborns detects more cases of life-threatening congenital heart defects than current standard approaches and should be adopted into the routine assessment of all newborns before discharge from hospital, according to an Article published Online First in The Lancet.

So that that doesn’t really excuse the break by Journal Watch, whom I’ve contacted for comment, but it could explain it.

You’d be forgiven, by the way, for thinking I’d made up this headline to kick Embargo Watch back into gear after what has been an unprecedented three-week hiatus. Sorry about that, but EW’s sister blog Retraction Watch has been all-consuming lately, in the run-up to our first anniversary. But this stuff is all true. And I’ve got a bunch of EW posts waiting to be written, so stay tuned.

Not that I have time, but maybe I need to start a Journal Watch Watch.

Update, 6:35 p.m. Eastern, 8/4/11: A few minutes after the embargo on this study lifted, I got the following reply from Journal Watch publisher Alberta Fitzpatrick:

As Publisher of Journal Watch, I am responding to your email regarding the Lancet embargo break.  Thank you for following up directly with us on this situation.  It now appears that we may have made an honest error and inadvertently broken the Lancet embargo.  I have apologized to Tony Kirby at Lancet and we have taken the story down.   Since it is after work hours in Boston I will need to follow up tomorrow to determine exactly how this error occurred.

Our editors have the highest respect for publisher embargos and I believe this to be the first time in Journal Watch’s 25 year history that such an error has occurred.  Thank you again for coming to us directly and for being the champion of publisher embargo rights.   It’s greatly appreciated.

As far as I can tell, the story hasn’t been taken down, however. [Update 2, 7:15 p.m.: Fitzpatrick tells me Journal Watch told their online vendor, Highwire, to remove the post a few hours ago, but that the process takes a while.]

Update 3, 8 a.m. Eastern, 8/5/11: This apology went out in this morning’s Journal Watch Physician’s First Watch reader email (thanks to Serena Stockwell and Gideon Gil for sending):

An Apology to the Lancet

In yesterday’s edition we covered a story on pulse oximetry from the Lancet that broke their embargo by a day.

We made the mistake by miscalculating the time difference between London and Boston, and then compounded it by subtracting a day. Then our internal safeguards failed.

We want to offer a sincere apology to the Lancet for this, and to our competitors whom we inadvertently scooped. We’re revising those safeguards so this won’t happen again.

—The Editors

Lancet article (Free abstract)


Written by Ivan Oransky

August 4, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. It came down right around the time of your second update.


    August 4, 2011 at 7:41 pm

  2. i call shenanigans. this is their job – breaking news. for 25 yrs. and suddenly oopsie we broke it on a big story?


    (sent from phone. scuse gramer & tyops)


    August 4, 2011 at 8:30 pm

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