Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Unclear on the concept? One freelancer’s frustrating experience with an AACR abstract embargo

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It may be unscientific to say that cancer research conferences have more than their share of embargo hijinks, but Embargo Watch readers would be forgiven for that impression. The meetings of the American Society of Cancer Oncology (ASCO) and American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) almost always spawn embargo breaks – sometimes by the organizations themselves.

With that history in mind, I’m pleased to present a guest post from Melinda Wenner Moyer , a former student of mine at New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program who is now a highly regarded (and productive) freelancer. Melinda describes her exasperating experience with one company sponsoring research being presented this week in Chicago. (For reference, here’s the AACR’s conference embargo policy.)

Last Thursday, a news editor at a well-known medical journal, for whom I frequently work, asked if I would write an article about a new type of cancer drug. The piece was to be pegged on the results of a phase 2 clinical trial being presented on Monday at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting in Chicago. The topic piqued my interest, so I agreed and accepted a deadline of Wednesday.

But thanks to a pharmaceutical executive’s fundamental misunderstanding about the meaning of embargoes, the assignment has been more of a headache than I anticipated.

The problems started when my editor first reached out to the academic scientist presenting the research at AACR, asking for a look at the data. My editor wrote:

I was wondering if you could give me a bit of a heads up, under embargo, about what the results of the phase 2 trial show. I promise not to write anything about the work until after your presentation. But since I won’t be attending and am trying to get a sense of the exciting work from afar, I wanted to get a ‘sneak peek’, so to say.

The scientist wrote back cc’ing two executives from the pharmaceutical company sponsoring the trial. He attached a press release from February that cited some of the findings. The scientist went on to say that

the remainder would require strict adherence to embargo per AACR policy.

So far, so good. I then followed up with the two pharmaceutical contacts directly, once again asking for an advance look at the data. I reiterated that I would not publish any of the findings until well after the embargo lifts. One executive replied:

We would be happy to share the data with you on Monday (it is currently embargoed) and talk with you on Tuesday.

Now I was baffled. Embargoes were created for this very reason—to give journalists time to report on new findings before they are announced to the public. When the FDA tried something like this last year, in what looked like an attempt to turn reporters into stenographers, a swift outcry forced them to change their minds. So I wrote the executive back, trying my best to stifle my annoyance:

Thanks so much. That will be fine, and I look forward to talking with you on Tuesday, but keep in mind that the whole idea of an embargo is to allow the press (me) to see the data before they are released to the public, so that we can digest and report on them in advance. We just can’t publish anything about them until the embargo lifts.

I sent that email on Thursday evening, and I since haven’t received a response, much less the advance peek at the findings I was hoping for.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not necessarily in favor of embargoes. But when an editor and writer agree to the terms of an assignment based on an understanding of embargo rules that scientists don’t share, it’s a hardship for the writer and a big disservice to science journalism.

Will this kerfuffle ultimately compromise the quality of my piece? Maybe, as I won’t have as much time to digest the results and consult with experts. But the more fundamental problem is that this pharmaceutical company executive got the concept of the embargo completely backward. He used their “embargo” as an excuse for why he couldn’t share the data with me. Yet the very reason an embargo exists is to provide the press advance access.

If you’re going to throw around the term “embargo,” please do your homework beforehand so that you know exactly what it means.


Written by Ivan Oransky

April 4, 2012 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Ivan, plenty of scientists are confused about this point. I’m a science writer employed by a medical school, and sometimes faculty are afraid to send me a manuscript before an embargo lifts. They cite the Ingelfinger rule.


    April 4, 2012 at 10:15 am

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