Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Scientists like the gag order of the Ingelfinger Rule, says new paper

with 3 comments

There’s an interesting paper on the “gap” between science and the media in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). What caught Matt Shipman‘s eye enough to send it to Embargo Watch was a passage about the Ingelfinger Rule:

More than half of US neuroscientists and more than 60% of German neuroscientists perceive the so-called Ingelfinger rule (42) as still effective. According to that rule, “acceptance of a publication by a scientific journal [is] threatened if the research results have already been reported in the mass media” (Table 1). The data also suggest that this rule is not simply imposed on reluctant scientists by jealous journal editors attempting to protect the exclusivity of the content of their journals, but that it actually conforms to scientific norms, in particular those of the biomedical research community. In the five-country study of biomedical researchers in 2005 mentioned earlier, 71% to 83% of the respondents agreed that “scientists should communicate research findings to the general public only after they have been published in a scientific journal.” In another study, leading US nanoresearchers also tended to agree with that statement (35). Approximately half of the neuroscientists and scientists at large surveyed in Germany and the United States in 2011 to 2012 disagree with the demand that scientists, if asked, should “provide information about current research or research that has not yet appeared in scientific publications” (Table 1). Perhaps most relevant as an indicator of a respective norm, 48% of German scientists, 57% of German neuroscientists, and 69% of US neuroscientists think it is an important condition that makes talking to the media about research results acceptable to their peers, namely that these results have been previously published in a scientific journal (Table 1).”

There’s a more cynical reason scientists may not want to share data, namely that they fear getting scooped by bigger labs. And the Ingelfinger can be self-perpetuating: Junior scientists may just be doing whatever senior researchers model for them. Whatever the reason, however, it’s important to note, as the paper puts it, that the

rule is not simply imposed on reluctant scientists by jealous journal editors attempting to protect the exclusivity of the content of their journals…

It’s that exclusivity argument you hear a lot here at Embargo Watch when I note that the real problem with embargoes is that they’re a tool of the Ingelfinger Rule, which I see as one step short of a gag order. I still think that exclusivity is part of journals’ motivation. But it’s only part of the picture. The fact that large swaths of scientists support the rule, for whatever reason, suggests it might be even more difficult to shrink the influence of Ingelfinger. And it also explains why scientists err on the side of conforming to a strict version of the rule that journals don’t even support anymore.

If journals were as interested in publishing negative results as they were in publishing positive results, this would be less of a problem. As long as scientists will only talk to the public about what they publish, however, and not about what they’re not publishing, we’re going to have a skewed vision of science.

Written by Ivan Oransky

August 22, 2013 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. The Ingelfinger rule is especially important when it comes to negative results, particularly failures to replicate. As a working scientist I’ve been in the position of having my conclusions questioned on the basis of somebody else’s unpublished observations, and that’s a very unpleasant situation. I strongly believe that scientists should discuss their preliminary data with their colleagues (that’s largely what meetings such as the annual Society for Neuroscience convention are for), but making public statements about results that have not been reviewed can only lead to trouble for all concerned.

    As for embargoes, I think they serve the needs of journalists as much as the needs of journals. For one thing, they give journalists time to prepare a story carefully without worrying about being scooped. For another, they create an “event” localized to a specific point in time, something that is very helpful for giving an impression of breaking news.


    August 22, 2013 at 10:32 am

  2. It does seem like Ingelfinger is used as an excuse more than a legitimate boogeyman, and that’s clearest at medical meetings: huge swaths of data are revealed (in “public”) ahead of publication and without any consequence. And yet revealing the same information to the media — sometimes even *after* it’s been presented — is often resisted by the researchers.

    (And it seems from my outsiders perspective that researchers are not antagonizing the journals. Are there stats on how many papers have ever been pulled because of Ingelfinger?)

    From a practical point of view, there is no difference in sharing data with 20,000 attendees at a meeting and sharing that same data with 20,000 readers of a trade publication. To run to Ingelfinger for one but not the other as always seemed disingenuous.

    Brian Reid (@brianreid)

    August 22, 2013 at 11:52 am

  3. How about the Franklin rule: don’t show other peoples work to other people without the express consent of that person. Its the showing of someone else’s work without their knowledge or consent that causes the trouble. Once something is out there at a big scientific conference at least all those people are witnesses to the fact that that person is claiming responsibility for that work and more to the point that person has decided to reveal their data.

    treasure map

    August 23, 2013 at 9:21 am

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