Astronomy meeting reveals the real problem with the Ingelfinger Rule
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.
@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.