Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Ingelfinger Rule, be damned: Purdue press-releases football concussions study that isn’t published yet

with 2 comments

Last week, a few days before the Super Bowl, a Purdue University press officer sent veteran health and science reporter Nancy Shute a press release about what looked like an interesting study. Titled “Football findings suggest concussions caused by series of hits,” the release was about work by Purdue’s Eric Nauman and colleagues, set to be published in the Journal of Biomechanics.

Shute was intrigued enough by the release to go look for the paper. (She knows as well as I do that reporting on studies from press releases — which some of our competitors seem to do — is journalistic malpractice.) But she couldn’t find it anywhere on the journal’s site, so she asked Emil Venere, the press officer, what was going on.

The paper hadn’t been posted yet, Venere told her. The journal had accepted it, but it might be weeks before it’s posted. Purdue had inquiries about it already, and didn’t feel they could wait.

Hmm, I thought. Purdue, with the willing participation of one of its scientists, was promoting a study that wasn’t published yet. Journals frown on that sort of thing, citing the Ingelfinger Rule, which basically says that scientists who seek publicity for their work before it appears in print (or online) won’t have that work published in their journals. The rule is often over-interpreted by scientists, who refuse to talk to reporters about their research for fear of losing a tenure- or grant-determining paper.

So I asked Venere whether the journal had green-lighted the release. Venere sent me the paper, and said by email:

One of the researchers, Eric Nauman, checked with the journal’s editor. He never did get a reply, so we assume it’s OK to publicize.

I don’t think it’s alright to post the full paper, though, until it appears. I don’t know exactly when that will be, but it will be within the coming few weeks.

Hmm, I thought. First of all, if you want to help journalists and scientists be transparent, the entire paper should be available to anyone who asks for it after reading a story. That’s why I and many other reporters hate the “PNAS problem,” in which some of the journal’s studies come off embargo on a Monday afternoon but aren’t available until sometime later that week.

But the apparent Ingelfinger violation seemed the bigger deal here. So I went to the journal’s editor, Farshid Guilak of Duke. Did he know about the release? Had a message from someone at Purdue slipped through the cracks?

Guilak told Embargo Watch he doesn’t handle publication issues once papers been reviewed and accepted. He didn’t have any record of being contacted about the press release, but he asked the publisher’s office, and they told him:

I certainly don’t recall seeing a request concerning this paper…we haven’t authorized the release or approved any copy and are not aware of any request being made.

So, well-intentioned or not, the Purdue release had gone out with anyone giving the go-ahead. Wait, I thought, doesn’t that violate the Ingelfinger Rule? Guilak told me, by email:

No, we don’t have a firm policy on this issue.  We have relatively few press releases so it doesn’t come up very often, and this is the first time I’m aware that a release was put out before the article (possibly because of the timing of the Superbowl).  It is probably a good idea for us to put one together a clear policy for the future, though.

This is the second time in a week that lack of clarity about the Ingelfinger Rule has come up.  Although there are some similarities to last week’s post involving pre-publication publicity for a paper in Neuron, there are some differences. For one, it was the journal, not the institution, giving permission to run with something in that case. And the Journal of Biomechanics doesn’t seem to have ever asked anyone to agree to an embargo on any of their papers. So even if they had given someone an exclusive, they wouldn’t have been violating any agreement — which would be fine with me.

If last week’s post and this one suggest the power of the Ingelfinger Rule — or the fear scientists have of it, which is the bigger problem — is fading, I’d be very happy. But that, of course, remains to be seen. Embargo Watch will continue to keep an eye on such developments.


Written by Ivan Oransky

February 9, 2012 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. It might not just be scientists that overinterpret the rule, if you get my drift. There doesn’t seem to be any society ownership for the Journal of Biomechanics, but it looks to be a regular specialist journal simply aiming to review and disseminate work in the field. It’s a small piece of Elsevier’s pie, and if the editorial office has better things to worry about, then… what? Marketing is going to clean house?


    February 9, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    • Only a small minority of journals impose embargoes or the awful Ingelfinger rule on their unfortunate contributors. It appears that this journal couldn’t care less about it. I think that’s terrific, and it should be applauded and emulated by others.

      Bob Finn

      February 10, 2012 at 1:18 am

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