Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Why can’t online vendors post studies on time? Health Affairs issue goes online before embargo lifts

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For the third time in less than a month, technical glitches have caused embargoed journal content to go live before schedule.

Yesterday, Fred Mogul, a reporter at WNYC in New York, asked me whether I thought he’d get in trouble for posting an item based on a Health Affairs study that was embargoed until a minute after midnight this morning — but was already live. The study had posted sometime before 6 p.m. Eastern, when he got in touch.

Well no, I told him, you can’t embargo something that’s publicly available.

Then again, different journals deal with such cases in different ways. In mid-August, an Elsevier journal press officer was “stunned” to learn that a paper had been online for two months before the scheduled embargo, but the journal wouldn’t lift the embargo early. A week later, a different Elsevier journal made the opposite decision, apparently because the study had already been covered.  

My personal favorite, however, is how the Archives of Dermatology handled it when they broke their own embargo — lifting the embargo immediately, with a sense of humor.

When Mogul contacted Health Affairs, they acknowledged the glitch, but said they were asking reporters to uphold the embargo.

So I sent the journal’s press officers an email, too. Health Affairs editor in chief Susan Dentzer — who was kind enough to call me almost immediately after I sent my after-hours email — said this appeared to be an early post on the part of HighWire, the journal’s online vendor.

That was done, Dentzer told Embargo Watch: 

out of an abundance of caution and to make sure that things are posted in a timely way, and to head off any possible glitches.

We’ve certainly seen those kinds of problems before at other journals. There’s the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which embargoes a bunch of studies for 3 p.m. Eastern on Mondays, but doesn’t post many of them until later in the week. Or the Public Library of Science (PLoS), which has had trouble making sure its embargo time is the same as its “go live” time. Science, too, a reader reminds me, often makes readers wait.

What that means is that even if journalists wanted to include links to studies in their stories — a great way of building trust that Ben Goldacre, among others, has, well, strongly encouraged — they can’t. Or they have to go back in later, which may work for blogs but just doesn’t for wire services, for example. (I should know; I work at one that always includes a link, but is forced to use generic journal homepage URLs sometimes.)

And that means readers and viewers can’t check out the source material themselves.

I see good intentions on Health Affairs’ part (although I’d have liked them to lift the embargo once it was clear the content was live.) But in trying to ensure the studies were live when they were supposed to be, HighWire seems to have overcompensated. I’m still not clear on why the content management systems at HighWire and ScienceDirect — Elsevier’s online publishing system — don’t include the ability to time a post and make it stick.

I guess I’ll just have to ask, and I’ll report back with what I find.

Please see an update on this post that includes a clarification, an apology, and a change to the Health Affairs policy.

Written by Ivan Oransky

September 8, 2011 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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