Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Unintended consequences? What the new ASCO embargo policies have wrought

with 11 comments

Brian Reid

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.

Written by Ivan Oransky

May 21, 2012 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

11 Responses

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  1. I actually think this moves us nicely toward a post-embargo world. There are great posters that aren’t being covered at all, and eventually we’ll figure that out.

  2. Maybe it will get journalists out of the press room and strolling abstracts looking for something interesting or overhearing good gossip that can turn into a story. I’ll suggest ASCO’s very innovative ongoing clinical trials poster section as a great place to start — especially if you’re looking for cool science from private companies. I just wish more scientific orgs copied that innovation.

    David Miller

    May 21, 2012 at 11:50 am

  3. As both a journalist and person living with cancer, I find the strong emphasis on the financial aspects of oncology conferences – at the expense of coverage of what new developments mean to the patients actually impacted by cancer – to be disturbing. Fortunately in a social media era the opportunity is now there to drill down into content that has never been covered in the past and therefore not available to the patient. Since there are now 14 million cancer survivors in the US, and, as already noted in ASCO coverage, there is inadequate PCP support for the survivorship programs we need to manage our health, it is vital that more patients get involved and make their own decisions on which abstracts, announcements and presentations are relevant, regardless of those the financial press deems as the “news” that matters. Our needs, and perspectives, are very different.

    Pat Elliott

    May 21, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    • Amen, Pat! I am a multiple myeloma patient and write about my own cancer. You certainly look at things differently! Scary part of all of this to me is that many of the financial/medical advisers I have met at these meetings (and ASH) know more about what’s going on than the researchers or docs! Not sure what that says…

      Pat Killingsworth

      May 22, 2012 at 1:16 pm

  4. Let’s not discount Brian’s bias as a PR guy who wants/needs to promote his clients to journalists. The avalanche of ASCO abstracts makes his job a bit tougher but I’d argue that compelling, important data are rarely, if ever, lost in the shuffle. Maybe Brian needs to find better clients?

    Embargoes or not, journalists looking for good cancer drug stories are not going to find them sitting in the ASCO press room, gorging on free cookies and bad coffee. Likewise, it’s best to avoid the gaggle of PR pros who hang around the doorway of the press room with puppy-dog eyes. Those desperate “Can I take a few minutes of your time to tell you about…” pitches are almost always a waste of time.

    Miller (above) is right. If you want good stories, roam the halls of the ASCO conference. Sit in on sessions, check out the posters, find sources, talk to them. Be anywhere BUT the press room and you’ll have a successful meeting.

    Embargoes make everyone lazy and stupid. If you’ve spent an entire ASCO sitting in the press room re-writing embargoed press releases, you’ve wasted your time, your bosses’ time and most importantly, the time of your readers.

    adam feuerstein

    May 21, 2012 at 12:40 pm

  5. As a cancer blogger and survivor, I roamed the halls of ASCO for the first time last year until my feet bled. I listened to sessions, talked to doctors,and tried to talk to a number of pharma reps until they threatened to toss me and my camera out. I was admiring the fine Italian leather chairs, but no matter. I found troves of information that will never make the light of day because they are no longer about drugs that will make big money.

    Yet for the man or woman with cancer the findings may indeed make the difference between a cancer’s recurrence. Or not.

    Perhaps to make it easier for all involved we should divide ASCO abstracts into two distinct categories 1) it’s about the money, stupid and 2) truly helping people with cancer.

    It’s not about the press room. It’s about each of us being responsible about our part in the story…without calling names.

    • Your categories aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, money/profit/greed is often the motivator for developing the therapies that help people with cancer.

      adam feuerstein

      May 21, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    • I agree, Jody. The press room is a waste of time. Poster sessions are where it’s at! I just visited your blog… You go, girl! Two of mine: helpwithcancer.org and multiplemyelomablog.com. Like you, I’m a survivor, although when you have myeloma (no cure) I always write “patient.” Good luck to you! Pat

      Pat Killingsworth

      May 22, 2012 at 1:19 pm

  6. I’d argue that the new approach is much fairer all around when everyone has access at 6pm and the playing field is greatly levelled. The old system encouraged selective embargo and was far worse with some people (usually the big media outlets) having preferred access over others (usually the science bloggers).

    In the main, I agree with Adam and David – smart writers on top of their game either figure out the hot stuff upfront by tracking the key studies in their field or find new hot stuff to write about in the poster halls at meetings.

    In the last few years of science blogging I don’t recall seeing a single journalist in the poster halls (Too far! Too cold! Too overwhelming! Don’t need to, I get what I need in the press briefings! are all familiar cries I’ve heard from some). They rarely venture out of the press office and press briefings, preferring to be spoon fed press releases/information/company messages etc. And people not at the meeting wonder aloud why the ‘news’ is much the same (from rehashed press releases) and not all of it what was really hot, new or interesting at the conference.

  7. What an interesting, thoughtful site! Comments are wonderful! I’m interested in this type of academic thinking. I have been covering ASCO and ASH for four years and never found a place to share my thoughts. Keep up the great work!

    Pat Killingsworth

    May 22, 2012 at 1:21 pm

  8. Firstly, I wish the best of luck to the cancer survivors and patients on this comment thread.

    Ivan Oransky suggested on twitter that people should take a look at this discussion, and I’m glad that I did.
    It’s interesting to hear about changes in the embargo policy and press coverage at this meeting and compare it with my field (astronomy). Please excuse the digression, but as Ivan explained last year the American Astronomical Society has also dispensed with the freely available but embargoed policy they previously held:

    https://embargowatch.wordpress.com/2011/02/25/catalyzed-by-embargo-watch-aas-does-away-with-freely-available-but-embargoed/

    This is a useful improvement, but I think a more important change has been the clear decline in the number of reporters who attend our meetings and the increased workload for the reporters who do attend or follow online. It’s difficult for reporters to take the time to wander around poster sessions looking for hidden stories when they’re expected to write 4 or 5 stories a day.

    From interesting web discussion like this one:

    http://ksjtracker.mit.edu/2012/04/05/what-everyone-should-know-about-genome-scans/

    I had believed that science writers in the health field faced the same *severe* time and workload constraints.

    Given these challenges, publicity and outreach workers like me perform a useful role in helping to find the best stories at the meeting. Press briefings typically contain more than one story, so we’re competing with others for the attention of the press and are therefore very motivated to find good material.

    My question is, why are the ASCO press events so bad? It almost sounds like there’s a pact between press officers to find weak stories. Is there an incentive to cover “safe” or noncontroversial treatments, or incremental improvements, rather than bolder research that may never pan out? Obviously I’m speculating here, as this is not my field.


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