Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Elsevier obstetrics-gynecology journal “stunned” to learn embargoed cervical cancer screening study is already online

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One of the services we offer readers at my day job as executive editor of  Reuters Health is links, whenever available, to our primary sources. We were doing it before Ben Goldacre asked why journalists don’t link to studies, but if you want to know why we do, read his column.

Many of the studies we cover are never embargoed. (Imagine that: I run a health news service that doesn’t rely solely on embargoed material.) So as per our practice, when a member of our staff was working on a story about excess cervical cancer screening from the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (AJOG) embargoed for a minute after midnight this morning, she tried to find a digital object identifier (DOI) she could include in the piece. Turns out it was right in the press release:

The article is “Human papillomavirus and Papanicolaou tests screening interval recommendations in the United States” by Katherine B. Roland, MPH; Ashwini Soman, MBBS, MPH; Vicki B. Benard, PhD; Mona Saraiya, MD, MPH (doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2011.06.001). It will appear in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Volume 205, Issue 5 (November 2011) published by Elsevier.

She went to the DOI, to see if it said it would be live at a later date, or gave us an error, so we could decide what to put in the story. Then she had a surprise.

The study was already live. It had been since June 12 — more than two months. And yet the embargoed press release had only gone out on Sunday, August 14.

We asked the person handling press for the journal what was going on. She responded:

I am stunned to see that indeed this link says that the article has been online as of June 12, 2011. I have been following the progress of the article for weeks now and it was only just at a point last week when it would be ready for advance online publication this week. I am aware of the embargo implications. I have left a message for the journal’s production manager and hope to be able to respond to you soon.

The Elsevier publisher in charge of AJOG wrote us:

Thank you for bringing this to our attention.  This article was posted in error as an accepted manuscript. Although the embargo is now formally broken, this article has received much interest from other news agencies that will still abide by the embargo date.  We ask that you do so also, and do not release your coverage until after midnight tonight.  Again, thank you for letting us know and we apologize for the inconvenience.

We chose to honor the “embargo,” as a courtesy. We didn’t have to. Here’s our coverage.

What makes this all the more exasperating is that the DOI — which if anyone had gone to it, would have shown a live study — appears in the release. Either no one clicked on it before sending out the release — yet somehow claimed the study “was only just at a point last week when it would be ready for advance online publication this week” — or they knew it had been online for two months. The former is just bad practice and doesn’t reflect well on journals; the latter means AJOG was manipulating reporters to give a study a boost.

I’m not happy either way.

And the incident wasn’t the first time a  journal seemed to have no idea when a particular study was going to appear online. That puzzles me. They are, after all, the ones publishing the studies, and you would think their content management systems (CMS) would allow them to specify. Good old WordPress, Embargo Watch’s platform, does, as does every other CMS  I’ve ever used.

If I can try to make lemonade out of lemons here: At least AJOG and Elsevier aren’t trying to claim the study could still officially be embargoed once it was published online, as others continue to insist.


Written by Ivan Oransky

August 18, 2011 at 8:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Never underestimate the ability of a major media company to use shockingly primitive content management systems.

    Chris Combs

    August 18, 2011 at 11:04 am

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