Unintended consequences? What the new ASCO embargo policies have wrought
Brian Reid is a former reporter for Bloomberg who’s now a director at PR/communications firm WCG. He’s written three guest posts for Embargo Watch: one on how the embargo system could break, another on what moving science reporting upstream could mean for embargoes, and a third on what would happen if medical and science reporting was more like legal reporting. In this post, he takes a look at the effects of changing embargo policies at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting.
Until 4 years ago, late May was a colorful time in the world of biotech. Shares of companies developing cancer drugs would gyrate wildly in advance of the beginning of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting, despite the absence of any public information. The force behind the “ASCO Effect” was Ivan’s favorite bugaboo: the embargoed-but-publicly-available farce. In mid-May, thousands of oncologists would receive copies of all ASCO abstract, which were technically under embargo. Naturally, this information found its way to the financial markets, creating a headache for almost everyone but the traders.
Starting in 2008, due in no small part to the tireless work of TheStreet’s Adam Feuerstein, the policy was changed. Rather than embargo the abstracts, ASCO made nearly all of them public, holding back only late-breaking research. The playing field thus leveled, business journalists have begun treating the abstract publication — which happened last Wednesday for the June meeting — as a media event unto itself, complete with an ASCO briefing about the gems that the conference wants to promote.
The policy is a great victory for fairness, helping explain today’s winners and losers. And it’s been a great boon for Feuerstein, whose two articles and list of highlighted abstracts published last week immediately dominated the conversation around the meeting.
But the new policy creates new problems for journalists. Five thousand abstracts, along with hundreds of press releases, all appeared at exactly 6 p.m. last Wednesday. That meant that reporters who wanted to be first on any given story would have had to sift through tens or hundreds of thousands of data pointsthat night. From that point out, any reporter who wanted to write up an interesting ASCO study has to confront the reality that the public data in the abstracts was already more than a day old. Should they publish as soon as possible? Wait until they see the full data at the meeting? Something in between?
In years past, the general approach has been to leave the market-moving abstracts to guys like Adam, ignore everything else, and just concentrate on the late-breaking news from the conference, where still-embargoed data is neatly packaged in a series of releases and press conferences. The old days, when reporters roamed the poster halls and ballrooms looking for neat, overlooked research are — if not gone — in serious jeopardy.
This is not a call for a return to the old ASCO embargo system, which was untenable and unfair. It is more a call for outside-the-box thinking about ways to ensure that the volume of document dump doesn’t create a paradox of choice, in which the huge number of options creates a disincentive to paw through the data. Already, we’re seeing some efforts to correct for these failings, notably tweets from the American Cancer Society’s David Sampson, who is pushing to get more eyeballs on important research that no one else has found and no one else is promoting.
But David’s effort is only a start. Embargo policies are designed to ensure both fairness and improve the ability of journalists understand and publish stories. The ASCO position does the former. Here’s hoping the community can do the latter.