Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

“Dear press officer who won’t promote unembargoed research papers:” “[Y]ou’re disappointing me”

with 4 comments


Angela Hopp

Some press officers are making Angela Hopp — and please forgive me for this one, Angela — hopping mad.

In “An open letter to press officers who won’t promote unembargoed research papers,” Hopp, who serves as the press contact for three journals published by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), explains that at those journals:

All accepted papers are published online immediately, putting them in the public sphere and making them ineligible for embargo.

(I’ll pause there for there a moment and make sure that the press officers who think they can embargo material that’s already freely available online read the part about such studies being “ineligible for embargo.”)

There’s plenty of material in ASBMB’s journals that press officers find of enough interest to press release. But when Hopp contacts some of them, she gets this response:

“The press office will not consider a paper for a press release after it publishes.”

Hopp thinks the idea that “press release = embargo” is a bad one, and doesn’t mince words:

I promise: I get you. I respect you. And that’s why I have to tell you that you’re disappointing me. Your refusal to promote research papers that cannot be embargoed is undermining the researchers you represent, devaluing their work and diminishing your profession.

Still, Hopp understands the rationale, and is sympathetic:

Your job is more intellectually challenging and time consuming than most people, including scientists and journalists, realize. You are burning calories like crazy running around your campus, donning bunny suits to get into the clean rooms and glad-handing politicians visiting new research centers. Some (overworked or lazy) reporters will disregard your unembargoed press release. Yes, writing about an unembargoed paper puts you at a disadvantage.

But you can and, in many cases, should do it anyway.

Hopp’s right, and I can demonstrate why, from the journalist’s perspective: In October 2012, I wrote:

…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 should note that very few of the unembargoed studies we covered had been press-released. I was one of the rare journalists, as Hopp puts it, who was “trolling journal websites to see which papers have just been accepted and published online.” And that means I’d take Hopp’s advice even further, and suggest that promotion doesn’t always require a press release.

Here’s Denise Graveline saying that more eloquently, with an entry from her 10 Big Myths About Embargoes:

  • Reporters won’t cover your story if you don’t embargo it. Nonsense. In fact, an embargo signals “everyone will have this,” which, while fair, doesn’t make the heart of the journalist beat faster. Why not tip reporters off to stories with the idea that the rest of the pack hasn’t found this gem yet? It’s like catnip, and a great alternative to putting embargoes on less-than-compelling stuff.

I’ll leave you with one of Hopp’s recommendations, which is spot on:

Don’t operate under a false construct. The primary criterion for a press release is news value. That a paper has been put in the public sphere does not diminish its news value.


Written by Ivan Oransky

August 8, 2014 at 8:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. It’s pretty sad to see the contempt in which these folks hold us journalists: “Don’t overestimate journalists. Trust me, most of them are not trolling journal websites to see which papers have just been accepted and published online. They’re lucky to have you to do the digging.”

    The correct word is not “lucky.” It’s “lazy.” And this represents an obvious way for journalists to distinguish themselves: by doing some of their own reporting.

    • Hey Carl — although I know many journalists (like you) keep up with the literature on their beat, bear in mind that Angela represents specialist biochemistry journals. I don’t think she’s being contemptuous of reporters in assuming that few of them have time to check the Journal of Lipid Research’s “papers in press” every day.


      August 8, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    • Carl –

      Would love your input on the impact of embargoes on editorial decision making at The Times… At UCSF, we push to get our releases out three days in advance of embargo (~70-80 percent success rate at the moment, I’d say), because historically reporters have told us that timing impacts their decision on whether to report the news. I know The Times actually does not adhere to this restriction in Sci Times; my sense is that there, and elsewhere, breaking news stories are more affected by this policy. Thoughts? Thank you!

      Jennifer O’Brien

      Jennifer O'Brien

      August 8, 2014 at 12:30 pm

      • Carl – I’m bummed that you (and perhaps others) saw contempt for journalists where there was none. I have a great deal of respect for my own dedicated magazine staffers and contributors and for the many fine journalists I’ve worked alongside and/or trained elsewhere.

        Cristy — Exactly. Our small shop doesn’t have time to scour every single journal’s papers-in-press page, and we don’t want to miss the real gems. There are countless outlets with similar constraints and goals.

        Jennifer – I’m glad you asked this. My hope all along was that my letter would spur conversation (a) between PIOs and journalists and, seeing as how our readers are mostly scientists, (b) between scientists and PIOs. Looking forward to hearing Carl’s answer.

        In “Brownsville Girl,” Bob Dylan sings, “people don’t do what they believe in, they just do what’s most convenient, then they repent” (his punctuation). I imagine that we all can agree that this is often true for journalists and PIOs. But we must keep trying to be and do better.

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