Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Anger, confusion as Popular Science inadvertently broke blue planet embargo

with one comment

Ethan Siegel was not pleased last Wednesday:

Hey @PopSci, thanks for being total assholes and breaking the @ESA/@NASA_Hubble embargo for NO REASON! #jerkspic.twitter.com/Q5jBW2qEvM


As Siegel made clear, Popular Science broke the European Space Agency (ESA) embargo by about 21 hours. It turns out that Engadget followed soon after.

Now, those of us who agree to embargoes can get a bit, well, twitchy when someone else breaks one. Understandably. But most of us don’t take to Twitter to call a publication’s entire staff “total assholes.”

That’s probably because every time we see a broken embargo, we think, “there but for the grace of God, go I.” Find me a news outlet that hasn’t broken one. And as in so many cases, this was an unintentional break, as Francie Diep — full disclosure, a former NYU student of mine — explained, quite graciously:

@StartsWithABang @cosmos4u Thanks for your tweets. It was an honest and unintentional mistake

That came after Siegel recommended that Popular Science be sent to the corner in a dunce cap:

@Popsci @franciediep In the aftermath of your broken embargo, I hope that @esa @NASA and everyone else revokes your press privileges. #AWFUL

Most of the accidental embargo breaks I’ve covered on Embargo Watch don’t lead to sanctions, but Siegel — and Daniel Fischer, who alerted the ESA to the break — may get at least part of his wish. While the ESA hasn’t responded to a request for comment, they plan to remove Diep from their embargoed list, and will recommend that EurekAlert do the same, according to an email exchange among various press officers involved in the case.

What’s also noteworthy about this episode is that while the ESA had decided to sanction Diep by early Thursday morning (July 11), they planned to keep their embargo at the same time. Perhaps someone with a better understanding of astrophysics — and time travel? — can explain that one to me.

To make matters even more complicated and nonsensical, the ESA decided to move the embargo up by a few hours. Why not just lift it?

Apparently, “you can’t embargo something that’s in the public domain” is a trickier concept than “let’s punish the contrite inadvertent embargo breaker!”

Update, 2:45 p.m. Eastern, 7/15/13: Neither Diep nor Popular Science will actually face sanctions, an editor at the magazine tells me. The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has given them a warning — “if the event happens again, we will remove them without further notice, as our own policy says” — but EurekAlert told the magazine that they “appreciate your continued diligence with adhering to embargoes” and “can assure that Ms. Diep will not be temporarily suspended from access with EurekAlert!.”

And the ESO wrote to explain why they didn’t lift the embargo immediately:

The situation was quite complex. The embargo breaker was on US time zone. So was our partner for this release, NASA. We wanted to discuss with them before taking a decision. Lifting the embargo does not happen with a click though. We have a complex system that allows us to prepare a press release several days, sometimes weeks in advance. If we suddenly have to change our schedule, this requires changes to all images, videos, text, as well as generating other newsletters, updating publishing time on other press release platforms we use and many other such action items. This is why we needed a bit of time to make everything publicly available. Otherwise, any media outlet linking to our material would have sent readers to an invalid webpage.



Written by Ivan Oransky

July 15, 2013 at 9:00 am

One Response

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  1. Working from Sydney, we are often left scratching our heads and reaching for the slide rule to work out embargo times when they don’t include Japan/Sydney/Wellington time. A lot of this would be easier if all embargoed press releases included the time in GMT. Yes there are world clocks and online tools, but it would make life a little easier. I’m looking at you NASA. 🙂

    As for calling them assholes … I always think it, but wouldn’t write it. Although I did note that one UK publication broke an embargo from IOP Publishing Friday before last regarding a story from Australia about spin bowling. Not the only time the English ‘cheated’ at cricket in the last few days. :P.

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