Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

A wild and woolly week at Science: Breaking their own embargo, censorship allegations, and the CFS-XMRV retraction

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Science — the journal, although arguably the endeavor, too — has had a  busy week.

First, the mundane hoist upon their own petard: The journal broke its own embargo Wednesday when a ScienceNow story about a study embargoed until 2 p.m. Eastern Thursday went live 24 hours early. Here’s a tweet from ScienceNow that went out about 2 p.m. Wednesday, courtesy of an Embargo Watch tipster, linking to a story about elephants having six toes. (The story was removed and then replaced once the embargo lifted.)

I asked Science Press Package Director Kathy Wren what had happened. She thanked me for bringing it to her attention:

No, the embargo did not lift early. The story has been pulled from Science’s website. Thankfully it wasn’t up there for long and the problem seems to have been contained. The News editor is looking into what happened, but I think it’s safe to say it was a mistake.

I assume Science won’t punish itself, which would be consistent with what they do when other news organizations break their embargoes unintentionally and remove stories from their sites.

The break happened a day after Science alerted the press that it — along with Nature — was considering redacting an upcoming paper on the H5N1 avian flu virus at the request of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB):

The resulting virus is sensitive to antivirals and to certain vaccine candidates and knowledge about it could well be essential for speeding the development of new treatments to combat this lethal form of influenza. The NSABB has emphasized the need to prevent the details of the research from falling into the wrong hands. We strongly support the work of the NSABB and the importance of its mission for advancing science to serve society. At the same time, however, Science has concerns about withholding potentially important public-health information from responsible influenza researchers. Many scientists within the influenza community have a bona fide need to know the details of this research in order to protect the public, especially if they currently are working with related strains of the virus.

This isn’t an press embargo issue per se, but it does have to do with the flow of scientific information. The news led to cries of censorship in a number of quarters. But any redaction, it’s important to realize, would be voluntary, which makes censorship allegations a bit overwrought. Science, along with Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), published a joint Statement on Scientific Publication and Security in 2003,  noting, as Science said Wednesday, that

open publication brings benefits not only to public health but also to efforts to combat terrorism.It further emphasizes the need to publish “manuscripts of high quality, in sufficient detail to permit reproducibility,” and it recognizes that there may be occasions when a paper “should be modified, or not be published.”

And as my Reuters colleague Jack Shafer pointed out Wednesday, taking the advice of the NSABB — formed in 2004 in response to the 2001 anthrax attacks — isn’t censorship either:

…consulting with the U.S. government, as our journalists friends have shown, does not equal censorship, so everybody who is on that horse, kindly dismount. As currently constituted, the government committee is an advisory body, not the Myanmar Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, and asking a scientist or a scientific journal to withhold details about how to make a highly transmissible bird flu is not unreasonable.

My main concern at Embargo Watch has been whether journals are using embargoes and the Ingelfinger Rule to control the flow of scientific information to benefit themselves, and I don’t see that as an issue here. Their considerations seem reasonable, as do their remaining questions:

Science editors will be evaluating how best to proceed. Our response will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the U.S. government to set forth a written, transparent plan to ensure that any  information that is omitted from the publication will be provided to all those responsible scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety.

If I’m reading that correctly, they’re pushing the government for a clear plan in order to make sure that research efforts won’t be hindered by any redactions. That seems like the right move.

Finally, Science was in the news yesterday, for retracting a controversial paper claiming a link between chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and a virus known as XMRV. You can read detailed coverage of that complicated story at Embargo Watch’s sister blog, Retraction Watch, at ScienceInsider, and at the Chicago Tribune, in whose story you’ll find a familiar name. In a nutshell, Science editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts decided he had had enough of the spinning by researchers about why their results were still valid, despite all evidence to the contrary, and yanked the paper himself instead of waiting for the authors to agree on a retraction notice.

What’s interesting from an embargo perspective is that Science didn’t send out the notice to reporters in its weekly SciPak, which goes out Sunday nights. The table of contents for this week’s issue, which was available in that SciPak, included an entry for a retraction, with Bruce Alberts’ byline. But the notice itself wasn’t available.

As it happens, and for reasons I won’t divulge because it would compromise an anonymous source, I knew this was a retraction of the CFS-XMRV paper. So I called Science earlier this week and asked when the text would be available. The press office told me it would be sent out, for immediate release, sometime Thursday morning. I asked why it wasn’t included in Sunday’s SciPak, and they just said this was how they had decided to handle this particular retraction. They also wouldn’t confirm which paper was being retracted.

This left me with a bit of a dilemma. Technically, I hadn’t heard from Science that the paper was being retracted, so had I independently verified the retraction and run a story on it, technically I wouldn’t have been breaking any embargoes. But I had seen the fact that something was being retracted in the embargoed table of contents, which means that Science might have decided this was an embargo break, and sanctioned me along with all of my Reuters colleagues by withdrawing our SciPak access for some period of time.

As a staffer at a large news organization, I can’t risk that, as I have noted before. Others may disagree with my logic, and I respect that, but I wanted to explain my thought process for why we waited to file a story on the retraction.

As to how Science handled the retraction, I can imagine that the were concerned someone would break it if they sent out materials ahead of time. This is a very charged story, and embargoes are, after all, porous, as I’ve also noted before. And I am all for immediate release, if it means getting news to the public as quickly as possible.

But I’m not for immediate release if it means waiting several days after materials are clearly available and could help reporters write a better story. Time to digest findings and report, after all, is one one of the arguments journals use for why they embargo.

Science seems to have taken a page from the PNAS playbook on this one. When Nobelist Linda Buck retracted a PNAS paper last year, they held the news until the embargo on another Buck retraction — that one, as it happens, in Science — had lifted. They didn’t give any advance notice, even though a press officer at Buck’s institute had unwittingly let reporters know about the PNAS retraction. Here’s the exchange I had with PNAS then about their approach:

RW/EW: Will you be providing a copy of the Buck retraction embargoed until 2 p.m. yesterday? Is that embargo time because of the Science embargo?

PNAS: As a matter of policy, we do not provide advance copies of retractions or corrections to the media. The retraction statement will appear tomorrow afternoon in PNAS Early Edition (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/recent) coinciding with the publication of the Science statement.

RW/EW: Thanks. What’s the rationale behind the policy? I can understand publishing these as soon as they’re ready, but this one is embargoed and yet unavailable to the media for advance reporting.

PNAS: To be clear, we do not embargo retractions or corrections and we do not provide advance copies to the media as we do for research articles.

RW/EW: I understand the last part, but I guess we have a different definition of “embargo.” The retraction is accepted and and finalized, yet being held until tomorrow. To me, that’s an embargo. But I appreciate your quick and forthright responses. Thanks.

I hope this was a one-off for Science, which as been among the most forthright when it comes to publicizing retraction notices — and that it didn’t have anything to do with the fact that lots of reporters were likely to already be off for the holidays by the time the news arrived.

Written by Ivan Oransky

December 23, 2011 at 10:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. The press might not think the NSABB-sanctioned redaction of the Science manuscript is censorship, but here in the scientific community many of us do. It’s not likely that Science or any other journal would go against the recommendations of the NSABB, for obvious reasons. And once this manuscript is redacted, the precedent is set – and then it becomes much easier for the security hawks to start putting in place really restrictive regulations.

    Vincent Racaniello

    December 26, 2011 at 11:00 am

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