Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Ed Yong vs. a PIO, the sequel

with 2 comments

Ed Yong, courtesy Ed Yong

Ed Yong, courtesy Ed Yong

Long-time Embargo Watch readers — and you reprobates know who you are — may recall a February 2011 post involving science writer Ed Yong and a public information officer (PIO) at the University of Manchester. That episode kicked off with “I think you have all you need for a blog,” and went on from there. Scores of comments later, including many from the PIO, an apology was offered, and accepted.

So all I could think of when I saw a post on Yong’s Facebook page yesterday was, “Ed Yong vs. a PIO, the sequel.” Here’s part of what Yong posted:

Last week, I saw a press release about a cool octopus paper (that came out today). I wrote to the contact asking for a copy of the paper. She said she’d send out the paper on Wednesday when the embargo lifted. I explained why that was a problem and she said “Our Communications Specialist is on vacation and he left me with explicit instructions not to share anything until the embargo lifts.” What?

I had heard that the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Research Institute (MBARI) was doing that from another freelancer, Tara Haelle, earlier this week, and have since learned, from Yong’s Facebook post, that others got the same message.

And here’s the rest of Yong’s post:

I got the paper from PLOS and emailed the researcher to arrange an interview; no reply. Chased it; got this: “Sorry, apparently you pissed off our ITD folks by using MBARI images without permission or attribution”. I don’t know what ITD is. I’ve never had any complaint from an MBARI rep. I’ve checked all posts w/ “MBARI” and all have credited photos. You guys know I take attribution seriously.

I wrote back explaining this; nothing. I DMd the MBARI Twitter account, saying that if I had screwed up attributions, I want to fix it. They said they were looking into it; but nothing. So I wrote the post anyway based on the paper. It’s here.

This all sounded a bit strange, so I Judith Connor, the director of the ITD — which is the Information & Technology Dissemination Division — for comment:

As Kim was leaving on a long-planned (and well-deserved) vacation last week, he provided instructions on when and how to disseminate the press release he’d prepared. It was embargoed until today at 11 a.m. when the paper was published in PLoS One. Kim didn’t say anything about distributing the paper itself and I didn’t have a copy of it. We’re not a big group, so we try to multitask and cover for each other when one of us is sick or on vacation. Obviously this wasn’t enough of a coordinated effort! Hopefully we’ll get better at this.

Ed Yong contacted us for a copy of the paper and was told we didn’t have it. He responded that he’d gotten a copy of it from PLoS One, which surprised me. I don’t know Ed, so I can’t vouch for him one way or the other. I wouldn’t have sent off a researcher’s embargoed paper without the researcher’s approval and he’s been exceptionally busy this week as 2015 project proposals are due and he’s preparing to go to sea. In the past we did find an image posted on Ed’s blog that we had not released and asked that he take it down and he did so. That didn’t make me angry, but it didn’t inspire confidence either.

This week was pretty hectic–which reminds me to give Kim Fulton-Bennett a lot of credit for all the requests he handles each week. I’ll be very glad to see him return to work!

First, the image issue: When I ran Connor’s comments by Yong, he ‘fessed up immediately, which wouldn’t surprised anyone who knows him:

The 2nd description helps and I tracked down the exchange. Basically, I used an image from a Biology Letters paper in a post, rather than one of the media images supplied via the press website. Totally fair – I screwed up. I never received any direct complaint. Someone at MBARI asked the Royal Society to ask me to take down the images or swap them out for an approved one, which I did within an hour of receiving the email. This incident happened in 2011.

Yong added:

Since then, I’ve written other posts about MBARI research. I’ve asked them for copies of papers, spoken to several of their scientists about their work, and asked their scientists for comments on other papers, all without problem. One of their own comms team sent me this in 2012: “Thanks for covering the recent Vampyroteuthis story coming out of MBARI. You always add appropriate context and picturesque writing to your stories, which is what (in my opinion) science writers should be doing.” Given that, I’m more than a little surprised to learn that I’m persona non grata because of lingering resentment over a three-year-old mistake that I promptly fixed…

Now, to the handling of the embargo, which is more central to Embargo Watch: I certainly appreciate the need for vacations, starting with my own need for one, and that things can fall through the cracks when people go on them. But the idea of sending out an embargoed press release but not making the paper available to reporters who received the release is a bit problematic. I am fond of saying that it’s journalistic malpractice to write about a story about a paper without having it in front of you, because relying on press releases just isn’t adequate. Perhaps I should amend this to say that promoting a paper without making the full text available is public affairs malpractice.

I am confident that MBARI will take this to heart, and indeed “get better at this.” And the calm and thoughtful response from Connor just proves that sequels are never as good as — or in this case, as fiery as — the original.


Written by Ivan Oransky

July 31, 2014 at 11:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Sounds like some perspective is needed here. Folks like Ed Yong are supporting and advancing the science. A scientist, research team, or journal, should be tickled to have him focus his attention on their work. He has an impeccable reputation.


    July 31, 2014 at 1:45 pm

  2. Sadly the Facebook link from your email Ivan was broken. The relationship of bloggers to journalists is one that can cause problems. Our news contributors ask for wider exposure of their news on the social web, yet of course they expect embargoes to be adhered to. Our solution is to give registered journalists who have proved they understand embargoes access to embargoed news, whilst bloggers get on our blog roll and a customisable RSS feed. We square the circle by allowing journalists also to be bloggers, but not necessarily the other way round.

    Peter Green

    August 1, 2014 at 2:48 am

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