Stenographers, anyone? GMO rat study authors engineered embargo to prevent scrutiny
A study of the effect of genetically modified corn on rats that you may have read about earlier this week doesn’t seem to have said much about whether GMOs are safe. But it sure said a lot about how the scientists who did the work used a crafty embargo to control their message.
In an excellent post over at the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, Andy Revkin says the study
co-sponsored by the Sustainable Food Trust, is yet another example of the “single study syndrome:”
the habit of the more aggressive camps of advocates surrounding hot issues (e.g., climate, chemical exposure, fracking) to latch onto and push studies supporting an agenda, no matter how tenuous — or dubious — the research might be.
Revkin’s post, and the stories he links to, do an excellent deconstruction of the small rat study, so I’ll leave that to them.
It turns out there was likely an embargo break on the research. But that’s not why you’re reading about it here. What drew my attention — thanks to a few eagle-eyed Embargo Watch readers pointing me to this post by Thomas Lumley — is how the
co-sponsors authors of the research handled the embargo. As the AFP noted in their original story, since updated:
Breaking with a long tradition in scientific journalism, the authors allowed a selected group of reporters to have access to the paper, provided they signed confidentiality agreements that prevented them from consulting other experts about the research before publication.
My Reuters colleagues described the embargo agreement in a similar way:
In an unusual move, the research group did not allow reporters to seek outside comment on their paper before its publication in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology and presentation at a news conference in London.
In a move regarded as unusual by the media, the French research group refused to provide copies of the journal paper to reporters in advance of its publication, unless they signed non-disclosure agreements. The NDAs would have prevented the journalists from approaching third-party researchers for comment.
To their credit, the reporters at the three outlets I cite above went back and refiled their stories with comment from scientists unrelated to the study, and from Monsanto, once the embargo lifted. But the Sustainable Food Trust — which, in their words, acted as “an amplifier” for the authors’ message by handling media relations for the study (see their comment below) — knew damn well reporters would be under pressure to file something the moment the embargo lifted — especially since this was an embargo likely to be broken, as it was — and that their hands would be tied as far as outside comment.
Sorry, folks, but this is an outrageous abuse of the embargo system — which, after all, is an agreement between two parties. One of the main reasons for embargoes — if you take many journals at their word — is to give reporters more time to write better stories. Part of how you do that is talking to outside experts. And scientists — ones interested in science, anyway, not those interested in spin and political points — should welcome that kind of scrutiny.
This speaks incredibly badly of the authors, whom I asked for comment but have not responded. The US-based PR firm handling media relations referred me to the Sustainable Food Trust
, who haven’t responded yet either, who has bow responded in the comments.
Taking a cue from Revkin, I’m going to coin a new term: A stenographer’s embargo. The U.S. FDA tried this once, but later reversed themselves. Here’s hoping the Sustainable Food Trust doesn’t try it again, either.
Update, 3:30 p.m. Eastern, 9/21/12: Carl Zimmer, who comments below, notes on Twitter that this situation reminded him of the Darwinius affair.
Update, 4:45 p.m. Eastern, 9/21/12: Amos Zeeberg raises a good question below. Elsevier, which publishes Food and Chemical Toxicology, tells me that other than agreeing to the authors’ request to publish the study on a particular day, the journal had nothing to do with the embargo or its terms.
Update, 6:20 p.m. Eastern, 9/21/12: A commenter on Maggie Koerth-Baker’s post on this incident said the lead author of the study, Gilles-Éric Séralini, has a book on GMOs, among other things, coming out next week. The commenter’s right.
Update, 7:20 p.m. Eastern, 9/21/12: Sustainable Food Trust has responded, saying this was the authors’ embargo, and they were just acting as “an amplifier.” I’ve updated this post throughout to reflect their role, and added their comment. I also sent them this in an email:
I understand you were in a difficult position, but I also have to respectfully note that you were acting as agents of what was a truly outrageous abuse of the embargo system. My hope is that faced with the same situation again, you would decline to act on behalf of an author insisting on such terms, or even better convince him or her to use a typical embargo instead.