Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Astronomy meeting reveals the real problem with the Ingelfinger Rule

with 7 comments

Eris and Dysnomia, courtesy NASA

Embargo Watch readers have probably noticed by now that I’ve become far more concerned about the role of the Ingelfinger Rule in controlling the flow of scientific information than I am with embargoes per se. I’m still exasperated with inconsistent and bizarre embargo policies, but it’s the specter of Ingelfinger that I think looms larger.

So I went on high alert last week when Emily Lakdawalla, a blogger for the Planetary Society and winner of the Jonathan Eberhart Planetary Sciences Journalism Award, sent me this tweet:

@ivanoransky I thought of you today when B. Sicardy presented cool Eris results @DPS mtg today but said we can’t discuss b/c Nature embargo

I asked for more details, saying that didn’t sound consistent with Nature‘s embargo policy, which explicitly states that scientists can present at meetings, even if journalists are present, as long as they don’t court reporters’ attention.

Emily responded:

@ivanoransky Sicardy said he talked with Nature before he presented, they said it was OK to present as long as he “embargoed” it

She then added:

@ivanoransky Problem is, his results were important enough that other scientist presenters kept referring to them all afternoon

Here’s what Lakdawalla ended up writing about the session:

After lunch I started in the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) sessions. The KBOs were relegated to one of the conferences smaller rooms, and it has been overflowing throughout the meeting. It opened with Bruno Sicardy presenting some very interesting results on a stellar occultation by Eris, but I can’t write anything more about that because he asked people not to share details until they were published in Nature on October 26. Throughout the rest of the afternoon the other scientists kept referring to how Sicardy’s information changed some of their comparisons between Eris and other KBOs, so the rumor mill is probably already pretty leaky. But I won’t break anything until somebody else breaks it.

She was being polite. But I didn’t like the sound of this “embargo,” so I asked Nature’s press office for a response. Sure enough, I was right:

Yes, researchers with papers in submission at a Nature journal can certainly present at a scientific meeting but shouldn’t court the press.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the problem with the Ingelfinger Rule. Bruno Sicardy is not new to publishing. He’s a full professor. And yet his understanding of Nature’s policy — one that is actually quite explicit — is that he has to “embargo” a talk he’s giving at a conference filled with journalists. 

I can’t blame the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences, at whose meeting Sicardy spoke, for this misunderstanding. Earlier this year, they changed their “freely available but embargoed” policy in response to my criticisms. And as I mentioned, Nature’s policy is quite clear.

But somehow, scientists are so afraid of journals rejecting their work for alleged Ingelfinger violations, they’ll stand in front of an audience and say that what they’re about to present is embargoed. That happens to medical journalist colleagues of mine all the time. It’s a problem.

The Ingelfinger Rule was originally a well-intentioned attempt to keep scientists by publishing results in the mass media without being subject to peer review. But scientists’ interpretation of it has changed it into a block on the free flow of scientific information. I’d like to see journals come up with a better way to ensure that readers can trust what they publish, if that’s still really the goal.

Written by Ivan Oransky

October 12, 2011 at 9:39 am

7 Responses

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  1. I run into this precise absurdity at almost every meeting I go to. A finding will be public .. but embargoed. The scientists will be confused, but mostly terrified of angering a publishing giant.

    David Dobbs

    October 12, 2011 at 10:31 am

  2. The result of this fear that is hardest to deal with is that everybody can follow all the rules but stories still don’t go out. For example, a scientist can present results under consideration at a journal according to the rules. Then according to the journals’ rules a journalist seems able to write a story based on the presentation but not asking additional questions or interviews with the authors. Yet the fear is such that the stories don’t get written.

    Surely we as journalists shouldn’t be beholden to the mistaken fear of a scientist and should be free to still write the stories we want to write. After all, we’d still be following the “rules” and we don’t have a prior agreement with anybody, such as exists for an embargo. We just have to make sure we get the story out before the journal springs something embargoed on us, thereby running a risk of appearing to violate the embargo.

    Do we collectively know of cases where a journalist wrote something on the basis of a conference presentation without doing additional interviews and without the scientist courting media attention but then the scientist is Ingelfingered?

    David Harris


    October 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm

  3. I keep this Nature editorial bookmarked to share with sources when necessary:


    “We have therefore never sought to prevent scientists from presenting their work at conferences, or from depositing first drafts of submitted papers on preprint servers. So if Nature journalists or those from any other publication should hear results presented at a meeting, or find them on a preprint server, the findings are fair game for coverage — even if that coverage is ahead of the paper’s publication. This is not considered a breaking of Nature’s embargo. Nor is it a violation if scientists respond to journalists’ queries in ensuring that the facts are correct — so long as they don’t actively promote media coverage.”

    Jyllian Kemsley

    October 12, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    • Interesting. Twice in the past year I have come across papers on arXiv.org that are in press. One was with Nature. We contacted the researcher and he pleaded with us not to cover the story. We agreed as he is a reliable source of information and comment. The result was other websites (mainly blogs) ran with it, and twleve months later no sign of the paper.

  4. In how far can the contents of Sicardy’s talk be considered embargoed in the first place … when they are detailled in the abstracts of the conference for all to see?


    October 12, 2011 at 4:33 pm

  5. And in yet another bizarre twist a website belonging to the Nature Publishing Group has just reported all the details as well …


    October 12, 2011 at 5:45 pm

  6. If a scientist presents at a conference and then says “That’s embargoed”, that merely demonstrates they do not understand the meaning of the term embargo. Reporters present in the audience are under no obligation to agree to the scientist’s nonsensical request.

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