Sugar makes embargoes stupid, and doesn’t do wonders for a press release, either
A message today, about a Journal of Physiology study about how sugar affects learning in rats, from UCLA media relations staffer Elaine Schmidt:
I hope you’ll forgive the late notice and group pitch. Despite two months of patiently explaining to the senior production editor how a journal embargo drives news coverage, he refused to give me accurate advance notice of the article’s publication. Thanks for understanding.
(Schmidt tells Embargo Watch that she actually only began asking the journal about the paper a bit over a month ago, and apologized for the error.) Schmidt had originally pitched the story to her press list on Friday night, May 11, with a subject line “UCLA: Sugar Makes You Stupid.” (More on the press release itself later.) That release was embargoed for Monday, May 14, at 7 p.m. ET.
On Saturday, May 12th, an obviously frustrated Schmidt — who has been quite forthright about her embargo gripes in the past — sent this to her list:
After working late last night to pitch this study to you, this morning I received the following message from the production editor saying that the embargo date is now unconfirmed. I apologize for the confusion. Unfortunately, many smaller journals don’t understand the significance of embargo dates in relation to news coverage.
Please wait to cover this until you hear from me. Sorry again.
The message she was referring to was from production editor Jonathan Goodchild:
The issue seems not to up for preview at HighWire yet and I will have to contact my colleague at Wiley on Monday to find out where we are.
In the meantime, I don’t know, I am afraid. We’ll have to liaise again on Monday.
What makes this all the more maddening is that the study has apparently been online since April 2, more than a month before the embargo was scheduled to lift. A look at the longer email exchange between Schmidt, Goodchild, and others at the journal, which didn’t begin until April 4, suggests there was some confusion over what that meant for the potential embargo on the monthly issue of the journal. But as I’ve said countless times before, you can’t embargo something that is already online — and this was certainly online for a while before anyone tried to embargo it.
Meanwhile, contrary to what Goodchild seems to be suggesting, HighWire is perfectly capable of setting publication times, as I learned some months ago — it’s just that journals (ahem, Journal of Physiology) need to tell them when to make papers live.
The frostiness of the email exchange between Schmidt and the journal is a good reminder of how fraught the relationships between researchers’ institutions and journals — who, after all, get to control embargo times — can be. At one point, Schmidt wrote:
I don’t wish to sound vindictive, but please understand how unprofessional and disorganized this makes your journal appear in the eyes of the news media.
I am afraid the system under which you work is a difficult and a stressful one.
Now as for the press release: Sorry, but the study in question says nothing about whether sugar makes people stupid. That’s because, well, it’s in rats. But in the original release (Schmidt tells me she took my criticisms to heart, and added a mention of rats to the EurekAlert version I’ve linked to), you won’t know it’s in rats until paragraph seven, after reading the “UCLA: Sugar Makes You Stupid” subject line, and this introduction:
Attention, college students cramming between midterms and finals: Binging on soda and sweets for as little as six weeks may make you stupid.
Now, if said college students were studying for a maze navigation class, this would make sense. The way researchers tested memory was using a maze. But I don’t know of too many courses like that, and even if I did, I’m pretty sure they don’t enroll rats. The highly politicized sugar wars are complicated enough without an overblown press release.
Schmidt, to her credit, graciously accepted my criticism, and blamed her fructose intake. Touche!