A tipping point? Nature angers science journalism corps with short Kennewick Man embargo
It took 9,000 years for the remains of Kennewick Man to be found in 1996, nearly a decade of legal wrangling with the government for scientists to gain the rights to study him, and almost another decade for researchers to reveal his secrets.
But this week Nature, in a move that irritated a number of leading science journalists, decided that the news just couldn’t wait several more days so that reporters would have time to digest the details of what one journalist accurately described as “an incredibly complicated subject.”
As usual, we’ll leave the analysis of the results to the stories by journalists focused on the paper itself. Here’s some of the abstract, to provide a bit of context:
Kennewick Man, referred to as the Ancient One by Native Americans, is a male human skeleton discovered in Washington state (USA) in 1996 and initially radiocarbon-dated to 8,340–9,200 calibrated years before present (BP)1. His population affinities have been the subject of scientific debate and legal controversy. Based on an initial study of cranial morphology it was asserted that Kennewick Man was neither Native American nor closely related to the claimant Plateau tribes of the Pacific Northwest, who claimed ancestral relationship and requested repatriation under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
In order to resolve Kennewick Man’s ancestry and affiliations, we have sequenced his genome to ~1× coverage and compared it to worldwide genomic data including the Ainu and Polynesians. We find that Kennewick Man is closer to modern Native Americans than to any other population worldwide. Among the Native American groups for whom genome-wide data are available for comparison, several seem to be descended from a population closely related to that of Kennewick Man, including the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (Colville), one of the five tribes claiming Kennewick Man. We revisit the cranial analyses and find that, as opposed to genomic-wide comparisons, it is not possible on that basis to affiliate Kennewick Man to specific contemporary groups. We therefore conclude based on genetic comparisons that Kennewick Man shows continuity with Native North Americans over at least the last eight millennia.
Here’s this week’s timeline. On Tuesday, at 7:44 a.m. ET, the Nature press office sent this message to its media list:
We wish to alert you that we are highly likely to be sending out a press release tomorrow (Wednesday 17 June) at approximately 11 am London time and holding an embargoed telephone press briefing at approximately 3 pm London time / 10 am US Eastern Time tomorrow.
This relates to a Nature research paper that is moving rapidly through our system such that we are having to act very quickly. We are awaiting confirmation of the publication time and will send the release out as soon as we have it, but it is likely to be embargoed for 1800 London time / 1300 US Eastern Time on Thursday 18 June. Please note that this is different from our standard Nature publication day.
We would be grateful if you could look out for the press release and be aware that you may wish to dial into the press conference tomorrow. We apologise that we cannot provide more information at this stage, but hope that you will find this email useful.
Based on my email inbox and Twitter, that message irritated a lot of science journalists. A sampling:
About 24 hours later, at 7:18 a.m. Eastern on Wednesday, Nature sent out an embargoed release about the paper, which was then available on their press site. Reactions:
I asked Koerth-Baker, the science editor of BoingBoing, to expand on her thoughts. She wrote that she was
…personally troubled by the act of sending out an email announcing the there will soon be big important news and we can’t tell you what it is right now. I think that really serves to prime the pump of hype (whether or not that was what was intended), especially with reporters and editors who aren’t necessarily familiar with the complex and problematic history of this particular specimen. (Which risks the creation of a lot of coverage that hides mistreatment of Native people by scientific communities under a gloss of uncritical GEE WHIZ!) To me, it’s akin to when NASA announced that they were going to have a big press conference on alien life, with no other details until the actual press conference … and that turned out to be the arsenic life fiasco.
And, correct me if I’m wrong, but the original email here gave even less information about the content than the NASA press conference email, which ends up making it more difficult for editors to plan coverage because you’ve basically said “THERE IS BIG NEWS YOU WILL WANT TO COVER … and we are not even telling you what field it’s related to so you will have no clue of which reporters should be assigned to this or which sources to get lined up ahead of time to comment or anything.”
As Carl Zimmer put it:
This is an incredibly complicated subject, spanning genetics, archaeology, law, and politics. To give reporters access to the paper just 29 hours before the embargo lifts is ridiculous.
Well yes, it is. I really can’t disagree with anything Koerth-Baker and Zimmer have said. It echoes, after all, what I’ve been saying for five years. I asked Nature why the paper earned such special treatment, particularly the short embargo. They wouldn’t say:
We cannot discuss the scheduling specifics of individual papers.
In general, when a paper is published in our fast-track workflow, the publication details are confirmed by production the day before publication; if there are any issues, the publication may be delayed. We would send out an embargoed press release as soon as we have this confirmation.
As a service to the journalists on our press list, we sent out a note yesterday to highlight today’s embargoed telephone press briefing, in case journalists wanted to dial in.
Fast-tracking papers through peer review and publication is no great novelty at this point, but none of Nature’s response, of course, explains why the journal didn’t use their usual 6-day embargo period. I wondered if there was a competing group about to publish a paper, and whether the authors wanted to avoid being scooped. But Brian Kemp, who studies the DNA of ancient people and has commented on Kennewick Man, told me he was unaware of any such paper. And the findings have basically been reported elsewhere, for example in a January Seattle Times story resulting from a Freedom of Information Act request.
But there’s a glimmer of a clue in the scheduling of a new PBS documentary that premieres next week called First Peoples. One episode, first on the list, will focus on Kennewick Man. Nature’s next issue appears on June 24, which would appear to be the day the episode is scheduled to debut. So perhaps the scientists behind the study — and Nature — wanted to get out in front of the documentary, instead of having the paper run the same day. A charitable explanation is that they wanted to make sure the evidence was available to other scientists before the episode airs.
None of that changes the fact that Nature hyped this, as Koerth-Baker notes, and then gave reporters very little time with a complex story, as Zimmer says. I hope that next time a science journalist praises the embargo because it gives reporters time to digest a story, they’ll remember that agreeing to said embargoes gives journals like Nature leeway to pull nonsense like this. Or the New England Journal of Medicine to pull nonsense like the 38-minute embargo. And yet journals insist that embargoes help reporters do a better job covering the studies in their pages.
We journalists are like caged animals who walked willingly into captivity, and now we’ve suddenly realized our zookeepers are shrinking our cages. Think some of us will decide to break out?