Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

PeerJ broke its own embargo on brontosaurus paper — and that’s exactly what they meant to do

with 6 comments

peerjBy now, if you follow science news, you have no doubt seen coverage of a new study claiming that yes, Brontosaurus really is a dinosaur.

That study appeared in PeerJ, a relatively new journal (which, in the interests of full disclosure, has asked me to review a paper). The reason you’re reading about it on Embargo Watch is that several reporters were a bit dismayed to see that the study had been published at PeerJ some time before its scheduled 7 a.m. Eastern embargo today. As Nature’s Ewen Callaway tweeted:

I asked PeerJ about the apparent discrepancy, and they responded:

The Brontosaurus article is a 300 page article, rendering over 150 figures, and so we needed to make sure it was published and online correctly before the press started linking to it. We wanted to avoid any 404 errors, Google penalties and most importantly any annoyance whatsoever to our readers trying to access the article.

We have always published research articles in PeerJ ahead of any press embargoes, and we consider the press embargo to be about the coordinated timing of the release of any news articles rather than an embargo on our own content. We did press release the article 8 days ago on Monday March 30th which we hoped would give ample opportunity for any coverage to be in place before the lifting of the embargo. Obviously we understand that journalists want to ensure that their news coverage is timely and not late to break which is why we state an embargo time, ensuring that other news outlets don’t break the embargo.

I can certainly understand the desire to avoid errors and annoyance, and that this was a complex paper. I’d say that’s what QA — aka quality assurance — is for. So yes, post the paper on a staging server, out of sight except to staff and those with embargoed access, ahead of time, as many publications do. What really puzzled me was this bit:

…we consider the press embargo to be about the coordinated timing of the release of any news articles rather than an embargo on our own content.

In other words, PeerJ seemed to be saying, it’s fine to make something available online but keep the embargo. That logic has never made any sense to me, as Embargo Watch readers know, so I asked for some clarity. PeerJ responded:

We offer the embargo to the press in the hope that it will be respected by journalists, especially as we give adequate time for the news article to be researched. As previously stated we have always published articles shortly prior to embargoes lifting for technical reasons and will continue to do so.

Well, that’s too bad, because it means the journal is asking reporters to agree to an embargo that they’ll break themselves, every single time. That’s not an agreement I’ll be signing any time soon. Embargo agreements are just that, agreements. When a journal refuses to hold up its end of the bargain, there’s no reason for a reporter to, either.

Please see an update on this post.

Written by Ivan Oransky

April 7, 2015 at 3:13 pm

6 Responses

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  1. It depends on what they mean by “shortly prior.” If it’s 5 minutes, no problem, in my opinion. I think an hour is too long. What do others think?

    Bob Finn

    April 7, 2015 at 4:41 pm

    • You quote the bit where they say “we consider the press embargo to be about the coordinated timing of the release of any news articles rather than an embargo on our own content”.

      Another way to interpret this is that the embargo is really just there as a part of our approach to news management. It has nothing to do with time to prepare copy.

      This is generally the reason behind embargoes on papers, but journals are rarely that honest.

      The idea that a journalist will respect an embargo when the story is already out there in public view is nuts.


      April 8, 2015 at 4:33 am

  2. AlphaGalileo is asking for clarification from PeerJ. We take embargoes seriously and suspend journalists who break them, however it looks like as if this, as Ivan has noted, was caused by them being new. More idc.


    April 8, 2015 at 4:32 am

    • PeerJ has told AlphaGalileo that it has to break its embargoes for operational reasons. AlphaGalileo therefore has decided that it can no longer accept news under embargo from PeerJ. We will continue to take news without embargoes from them. Peter Green, AlphaGalileo.


      April 9, 2015 at 7:40 am

  3. Following a constructive email exchange PeerJ have undertaken not to break their own embargoes. AlphaGalileo has therefore agreed to take embargoed news from the in the future. Peter Green, AlphaGalileo.


    April 9, 2015 at 12:15 pm

  4. PeerJ seems to spell out that the embargo ends as soon as they publish anyway. Their press releases contain the statement: “All works published in PeerJ are Open Access and published using a Creative Commons license (CC-BY 4.0). Everything is immediately available—to read, download, redistribute, include in databases and otherwise use—without cost to anyone, anywhere, subject only to the condition that the original authors and source are properly attributed.”
    For me the pertinent words are “immediately available to …. redistribute … and otherwise use.” With proper attribution, of course.

    Tina Saey (@thsaey)

    April 9, 2015 at 3:26 pm

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