Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Update on posting studies at embargo time, a change at Health Affairs, and an Embargo Watch apology

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I have an update on last week’s post about Health Affairs, HighWire, and why the journal’s September issue went live before its embargo had lifted — only to have the journal ask a reporter to keep to the embargo anyway. There’s a clarification, a change in the Health Affairs embargo time following the incident, and an Embargo Watch apology.

First, Health Affairs asked to clarify an issue in last week’s post, in which I referred to a “glitch” that had led to embargoed material being posted hours before the embargo lifted. Executive Publisher Jane Hiebert-White wrote me by email:

We are set to go online with our online hosting service, HighWire Press, at 4 pm Eastern. This time is set for a number of “technical reasons” not a “glitch.”  We want to allow time to run post-production items while HighWire staff and Health Affairs staff are available in case any technical problems emerge that would require human intervention. We also set this time to ensure our production is completed in advance of HighWire’s systemwide updates which occur Monday evening (our monthly issue is typically posted the first Monday evening of the month, but was posted later in September to coincide with our issue briefing featuring Don Berwick). 

Some of these technical post-production tasks include indexing the articles, updating metadata, delivering updates to CrossRef, exporting to PubMed, updating keywords and author information, updating topic collections, matching Publish Ahead of Print content to the issue in the indexing, loading and updating homepage information, updating new issue widgets, etc. (Some data supplements are posted later – but that is if they arrive later from an author or are supplemental post-issue content from us, such as an issue brief, podcast of an event, etc.)

The actual posting of articles takes only a few minutes. With the 4 pm trigger, HighWire had live links to articles by 4:03 pm for our September issue.

So, to sum up: Health Affairs had actually asked HighWire to post the content eight hours before the embargo was scheduled to lift. That means it really wasn’t fair of Embargo Watch to take HighWire to task, which is what happened when I tried to sift through what had happened here, and for that I apologize. (You might even say I’m retracting my interpretation…)

The lemonade from those lemons is that I had the chance to talk to HighWire publisher relations director Mark Johnson and learn just how HighWire works. The company has a proprietary workflow production engine called HighWire eXpress that allows  publishers to submit files, including papers and supplementary information, and set an embargo time. If they do set that time, even if they’ve approved all of the material as ready to go live, it won’t go live until the embargo lifts.

So Health Affairs set that embargo time to 4 p.m. Eastern, or simply approved the issue without setting an embargo, knowing full well their press materials said the embargo was eight hours later. I still see the journal’s good intentions — trying to avoid the having the embargo lift without the issue being live at all — but I still have an issue with them, too. That’s particularly true because when a reporter noticed the fact that the content was live, the journal asked him to stick to the embargo anyway.

Given all that, the news about the new embargo time was welcome, since it would likely avoid such problems in the future and suggests that Health Affairs is really trying to do the right thing. Hiebert-White continued:

Our ultimate goal is to be fair and provide a level playing field to journalists. The midnight embargo was set when midnight was a standard journalistic embargo time. Our Communications Director, Sue Ducat, polled a range of journalists from New York Times, NPR, AP, National Journal, and more, about embargoes in this new era of 24-hour online publishing. All the reporters enthusiastically embraced our proposed new embargo time of 4 pm Eastern. So starting with today’s Web First article, we are shifting to a 4 pm embargo, which is when our content goes live at HighWire. We will set our trigger at 3:55 pm to allow up to 5 minutes for the HighWire online posting.

This will provide a level playing field for journalists and all online readers. The downside is that the technical post-production items will not be completed at 4 pm, though the links to the actual articles will be live. Data supplements will not be attached. If you search for an article, it may not yet be indexed in our online search, etc.

As I told Hiebert-White when I called her to follow up, I think this is the right move. Journals used to twist themselves into knots so that no particular group of journalists would have an an advantage — although nightly network news broadcasts, given their former reach, often won. 5 p.m. embargoes meant that the news would still be pretty fresh at 6 or 6:30, instead of having already appeared in the day’s newspapers. Frankly, with the ability to publish 24/7, and with TV and newspapers less and less likely to wait until their “editions” to post content, nowadays it really doesn’t matter what time you embargo something.

If 4 p.m. Eastern allows Health Affairs to solve its posting problem, I’m all for it.


Written by Ivan Oransky

September 14, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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