Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Embargoes and exclusives don’t mix: New York Times story about Neuron study reveals a problem

with 4 comments

As any reporter who has tried to talk to a scientist can tell you, here’s what usually happens when journalists find out about a paper that’s going to be published. First, most of the time, scientists will be afraid to talk to you because of the Ingelfinger Rule, the one that says journals may yank studies discussed before they appear in print. Second, the journal won’t confirm the existence of the manuscript, or if they do, they’ll tell you it’s subject to the same embargo you agreed to with them.

What then usually happens is that if you go ahead with your fair-and-square scoop, but clearly didn’t have any help or information from embargoed material, the journal will sigh but release the study to everyone. The scientist won’t be sanctioned as long as he or she didn’t actively pursue coverage, and the reporter won’t be sanctioned because he or she hadn’t broken any embargo.

But that’s not quite what happened during the reporting of a story about Alzheimer’s research that appeared in the New York Times this week. What Embargo Watch has now learned is that Neuron gave reporter Gina Kolata permission to speak with study co-author Bradley Hyman — and then tried to maintain an embargo for every other reporter, after Kolata’s story ran.

That’s a different scenario than my post yesterday suggested. At that time, it appeared that Massachusetts General Hospital, where Hyman works, had given Kolata an exclusive. I could understand that. Hey, I love when I or my staff get exclusives, and I also know the power of appearing in the Times.

The fly in the ointment for Mass. General, however, is that having Hyman talk about yet-to-be-published work, especially if it named the journal where it was to appear, would be putting him at risk of having his paper withdrawn because he had violated the Ingelfinger Rule.

So I asked Mass. General for some clarification, and they sent this last night:

The folks at Cell Press, which publishes Neuron, agreed to lift the embargo on Dr. Hyman’s study, since the Times was covering a very similar study appearing in PLoS One and reporter Gina Kolata had requested the interview with Dr. Hyman.

But that, as I told Mass. General’s Susan McGreevey in response to her email, was only after the Times story had run. As I reported yesterday, Mass. General had originally told a Discover reporter that they couldn’t give her the study because it was still embargoed until February 23. They wrote her back shortly thereafter to say that Neuron was lifting the embargo.

I remained puzzled by all of this. If Mass. General had given the Times an exclusive, why wasn’t Neuron more upset? All the journal told me yesterday when I asked about what had happened was:

All media are welcome to report on Dr. Hyman’s paper. Any news organization interested in this research are encouraged to contact the authors directly. At this time Dr. Hyman’s paper is still in production at Cell Press. We will not be issuing a press release for this paper nor will we issue an embargo.

Gina Kolata filled in the gap for me this morning in response to questions I sent her last night. Speaking of Neuron, she wrote by email:

They told me and Dr Hyman that he could talk to me.

See why that’s troublesome behavior on Neuron‘s part?

In other words, Neuron violated its agreement with every reporter who has ever agreed to its embargo. We now know that if The New York Times calls and wants to publish news of a paper that’s subject to the Ingelfinger Rule, the journal will give them permission, but tell every other news outlet that it’s still embargoed, at least for a little while.

This is where things start break down in Embargo Land. If you ask journalists to agree not to write about something until you say they can — which is what an embargo is — you can’t go and given an exclusive to someone who calls with knowledge of a paper.

Exclusives are great, as I’ve noted. If journals want to use them, all the power to them. But when you use an embargo agreement, you give up the right to use exclusives on the material that you typically embargo.

But don’t take my word for it. I ran this scenario by someone with a lot of experience in communications strategy:

It’s either one or the other: you give an exclusive but don’t embargo, or you embargo, but keep that level playing field. That’s what the embargo was putatively designed to protect, see. It is the on-paper or electronic equivalent of a news conference, where (in theory) everyone is in the same “room” and gets to hear the news at the same time, and report on it in the same timeframe, having access to the experts all the while.

Otherwise, it’s like telling every jockey to wait for the gunshot, but opening the starting gate for one horse. When the other jockeys are watching the favored horse get a head start, they’re wondering whether they should bother with their end of the bargain next time. And who can blame them?

It’s another reminder that journals use the rules they’ve set up — Ingelfinger and embargoes — to manipulate the flow of scientific information for their benefit.

Update, 11 a.m. Eastern, 2/3/12: Neuron’s Lisa Lyons responds to my request for comment:

While it is not standard practice for us to allow reporters to run with pre-published studies, we made a decision to grant an exception and allow the author to speak to the New York Times about their work. There are a number of reasons we did this but prefer to not get into them publicly. We’ve also shared the paper with other news organizations who have contacted this office and have given them permission to publish the information on Dr. Hyman’s work.

The lack of transparency, along with the failure to acknowledge that this was a violation of the good-faith embargo agreement between Cell Press and all of its media subscribers, suggests this might happen again. And that makes me wonder whether anyone should bother agreeing to Cell Press’ terms, since they obviously don’t apply to everyone equally.



Written by Ivan Oransky

February 3, 2012 at 10:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. I don’t see your double-talk excuse for “exclusives” as any different. One horse gets out of the gate first.

    Maybe you could expand on that.


    February 3, 2012 at 10:41 am

    • I don’t have a problem with a horse getting out of the gate first (exclusives). I have a problem with breaking a good-faith agreement that forced all the jockeys to wait for the signal, then giving one of those jockeys an edge. That suggests none of the jockeys should trust you anymore.


      February 3, 2012 at 10:53 am

  2. Sour grapes, anyone?


    February 8, 2012 at 8:28 am

  3. The New York Times doesn’t have to play by the rules that apply to hoi-polloi. It is an aristocrat and gets to make its own rules. That’s how things work. Right and wrong do not apply to the elite.

    Bryan Maloney

    February 20, 2012 at 9:19 am

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