Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Take that, Ingelfinger! eLife announces its media policy, sans embargoes and Ingelfinger

with 2 comments

eLife, the new open-access journal funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, and the Wellcome Trust, announced its media policy earlier this week. (I was hoping to jump on this Monday, but despite being remarkably unaffected personally by Hurricane Sandy in midtown Manhattan, there were of course other considerations this week involving my family, my Reuters Health staff, and others — many of whom are still coping with the effects of the storm.)

The short version of this post: I love this policy.

From the policy’s preamble:

First, we are encouraging authors whose work has been accepted for publication to discuss their work with colleagues as much as they wish.  If writers or journalists hear about the work and wish to write about it, we encourage authors to discuss their work with the writer(s) concerned, and we suggest that authors make the accepted manuscript available at a suitable repository or their own website.  eLife is therefore not applying the Ingelfinger rule, which strongly discourages interaction with the media ahead of formal publication.  Second, given our policy to allow open discussion with the media and others ahead of publication, we will not issue embargoed press releases.  Instead, eLife will promote articles at the point of publication.

Here’s the policy:

eLife aims to advance scientific discourse and accelerate the pace of discovery by making important discoveries available to the widest possible audience as rapidly and effectively as possible. The following policy is designed to encourage high-quality, informed and widespread discussion of new research – before and after publication. It was developed in consultation with the eLife editorial community and is subject to further input, refinement, and change. Please send feedback and comments to media@elifesciences.org.

Released October 29, 2012.


1. Presenting and discussing the work prior to publication

a. Prior to publication authors are encouraged to present their findings to their peers, including at meetings and conferences; to deposit copies of their manuscript (original and revised versions) in open-access repositories, or to make the manuscript available via their website; and to blog about their findings. None of these activities will affect consideration of a manuscript by eLife.

b. When there is media interest in a paper that has been accepted by eLife, but not yet published, we encourage the author to deposit the accepted version of the manuscript in an open-access repository, or to make it available via their website. Media reporting will not affect consideration of a manuscript by eLife.

c. We request that articles in the media about papers that are in press at eLife include a reference to eLife and/or elifesciences.org.

2. Promotion of published content

a. Every published eLife paper will have a short, plain-language summary (the eLife Digest).

b. Papers in eLife will be promoted to the media and to interested readers on the day of publication. We consider this to be the optimal moment to promote the work, because readers will have access to the final published version, including any added-value content and functionality.

c. We will issue press releases for some papers on the day of publication. Because authors are completely free to release their content ahead of publication and to talk with the media at any stage, we will not be releasing content under embargo.

If you are interested in being included on the eLife media list, please contact media@elifesciences.org.

Disclosure: eLife’s Jennifer McLennan sought my advice over the past several months when creating eLife’s media policy, and we had a few conversations in which I gave her the same thoughts about embargoes and the Ingelfinger Rule that I’ve been writing on Embargo Watch for more than two years now. (She didn’t offer to pay me, and I wouldn’t have accepted anyway.)

I had an unrelated opportunity to lay out those thoughts in a Q&A with Kent Anderson at the Scholarly Kitchen:

The threat of Ingelfinger – as opposed to the reality, which many journals have explained, at least officially, doesn’t prohibit pre-publication publicity as long as researchers don’t court journalists’ attention – makes many scientists think they have to choose between being open about their work, even to the taxpayers who’ve paid for it, and publishing a peer-reviewed paper in a journal so they can be promoted, or get a grant. It exerts its effects far upstream of a typical embargo, which lasts several days.

There’s a legitimate argument for how a several-day embargo helps reporters interested in giving readers context and clarity do a better job, one that for many people can be fairly balanced against withholding information from the public for some short period of time. Embargoes require careful management, and I’ve found plenty of examples of publishers and societies that have demonstrated they don’t know what they’re doing. But properly managed, it’s not unreasonable to think embargoes may do more benefit than harm.

Ingelfinger, on the other hand, is a half-step short of a gag order. When journals do everything they can to maintain their control over the flow of scientific information for their own benefit – with the willing participation of many journalists, I should add – they distort how science works. Journals and reporters overemphasize how final a finding is just because it appears in a published peer-reviewed paper, and that makes it even more difficult to admit that maybe the study had limitations, and to knock down hype. Alice Bell has written persuasively about moving science journalism upstream. I love the idea. But it will require breaking Ingelfinger completely. That’s something Vincent Kiernan, on whose embargo critic shoulders I am privileged to stand, has argued for over the years.

Anderson — who has had other criticisms of eLife — says the new policy “reflects an idealistic but not necessarily realistic understanding of how the press works.” I see his point, and realism is always welcome. (In fact, one of the questions I asked McLennan was whether eLife board members and funders would be upset if they didn’t get coverage from a lot of outlets who let embargoes drive nearly all of their coverage. Apparently, they’re willing to take that risk.) Anderson’s posts are always thoughtful, based on years of experience, and worth reading. He writes:

By waiving the Ingelfinger Rule in its modernized and evolved form — which still places a premium on embargoes but makes pre-publication communications allowable as long as they don’t threaten the news power — eLife is running a huge risk in the attention economy. Namely, there is only so much time and attention to go around, and if you don’t cut through the noise, you won’t get the attention.

But that’s exactly why I love eLife’s policy: It puts the journal’s money where its mouth is and seeks to derive its editorial power by publishing high quality science — not imposing what amounts to a gag order to drive publicity.

Sticking with realism: I think Anderson is right about some of the press. But not all. And since I run a little health news service at Reuters that reaches millions of people, I can quantify just how much embargoes drive our coverage. By the end of October, we will have covered 122 studies from journals for our consumer service. Of those, 45 were embargoed — but we didn’t hit the embargo on 12 of them, because we had better things to do, like cover more interesting studies that weren’t embargoed. And sometimes when we did cover such studies, it was knowing they weren’t terribly compelling, but we wanted to get better reporting out there than I suspected some of our competitors will do. (I like to think of that as using the power of bigfooting for good.)

One limitation of my “study” is obvious: I’m the one making the decisions. But I know we’re not alone in seeking out studies that were neither press-released nor embargoed, because I see big news outlets covering those kinds of papers every day.

I’m not the only one who likes the new eLife policy. I checked in with Matt Shipman, a science writer and public information officer (PIO) at North Carolina State University who blogs about science communication at SciLogs. Shipman told me the policy “makes a lot of sense, in terms of raising the profile of papers being published by eLife.”

He said he’s glad eLife won’t be using embargoes:

I think embargoes create more problems than they solve, often resulting in misunderstandings, ill will and uncertainty among researchers, reporters and PIOs. In addition, it eliminates problems stemming from the fact that many embargoes lift at odd times — often late in the afternoon in EST, which is a pain in the neck for reporters and PIOs. (Especially those of us based on the east coast of the U.S.)

He also likes the fact that the journal is urging researchers to make accepted manuscripts publicly available online:

This will facilitate dissemination of the relevant findings sooner, which is great. But it also serves another significant role, in terms of giving reporters easier access to the material. I’m a PIO (i.e., flack), and it’s my job to promote research by faculty at my institution. I try to do a good job, but no reporter in his or her right mind is going to “take my word for it” when it comes to writing about research findings. They’ll want to read the paper and talk to the researchers.  If I’m pitching a story, I can provide direct contact information for the relevant researchers, but reporters usually have to get a copy of the paper from me. If we’re able to put a copy of the accepted manuscript online, I can include a direct link in my pitches. That means it will be my job to give reporters a heads up about important/interesting papers — but they can get the paper and talk to the researchers without having to come through my office at all. That’s what I would have wanted when I was a reporter. Among other things, it means reporters can get the paper immediately, rather than waiting for me to get their message and send them back a copy of the paper.

Shipman’s comments about getting papers immediately brings up another advantage of eLife’s policy: Bloggers who aren’t part of mainstream media outlets won’t have to jump through hoops to get embargoed copies of papers. Many of those bloggers are doing an outstanding job of writing about science with skepticism and tough questions, and some of them have dedicated audiences who might care about studies in eLife that no one in the mainstream media will cover.

In other words: Journalists — particularly those who allow themselves to be slaves to embargoes — don’t have to be the middlemen anymore. Excellent. Let’s all let quality — not access and all of its potential for too-cozy-for-comfort relationships — win.

Written by Ivan Oransky

October 31, 2012 at 9:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. For me, this policy will simply mean that i’ll find out about stories that will be in eLife through means other than Eurekalert. I follow a variety of biologists and science writers via their blogs and twitter and when a critical mass of them start talking about a story, i pay attention. In that sense, they act a bit like a curated Eurekalert.

    This will almost certainly mean we’ll be late to the eLife stories compared to where we might be if there were an organized embargo system. But (like Ivan noted for Reuters) we’re already late to a lot of embargoed stories. We just rely on trying to do a better job and reaching audience that don’t otherwise carefully track science news.

    John Timmer

    October 31, 2012 at 10:37 am

  2. I think it’s a good policy. But I must disagree with you Ivan when you suggest that ‘moving science journalism upstream’, would require ‘breaking Ingelfinger completely’.

    Ingelfinger and the reporting of upstream journalism are not really related. Despite the existence of Ingelfinger, there is lots of imaginative, creative, long-form science journalism already out there that describes work yet to be published and draws the reader into the excitement of the subject and the grit and messy details of the process of real science and real policy-making around scientific issues. Not just from specialist outlets either – but usually from outlets that support longform journalism.

    Alice Bell’s post on ‘moving science journalism upstream’ niggled me because – as much as I agree with her that what she’s so persuasively advocating is a good idea – she didn’t recognize the upstream journalism that already existed. I could immediately rattle off tens of examples of the genre that she seemed to be groping for.

    However, I assume that she was probably thinking mainly about daily newspapers, where writers do have to write a lot of material, fast, and so rely heavily on the existing embargo system. Kudos to those newspaper/daily website journalists who still manage to report round the journal press release churn.

    But Ingelfinger doesn’t really come into this, I don’t think. It may stop you reporting results directly from a conference – because the scientist is reluctant to speak until work is published. But you can still talk to the scientist, keep that information, and write a terrific detailed article whenever the work *is* published.

    The bottleneck for more ‘science journalism upstream’ articles is mainly a shortage of time and financial support for journalists to write longform pieces that require detailed work, I think – not Ingelfinger.

    Richard Van Noorden

    October 31, 2012 at 5:56 pm

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