Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Nature runs with another short embargo. This time, Science played along, too.

with one comment

cover_natureA bit more than a month ago, I wrote about a 29-hour embargo for a Nature paper on the Kennewick Man that made a number of reporters pretty angry. Today, the embargo lifted on another Nature paper — also involving the origins of peoples in North America — just 29 hours after the paper was sent to reporters.

What made this case a bit different was that the embargo ended up lifting on a Science paper (the DOI seems to not yet resolve is now working) on a similar subject at the same time. I’ll let Science explain how that happened:

The publication date for the Science paper by M. Raghavan et al. was originally slated for Thursday, 23 July, with our standard embargo lift time of 2pm Eastern Time that day. An embargoed PDF of the paper went out to registered journalists in the standard Science Press Package distribution the Sunday before publication, so on Sunday, 19 July at 8:00 pm Eastern Time.

Yesterday morning, 20 July, the Science Press Package office received a note from the Nature press office indicating they had just learned that  a paper in this week’s Science Press Package (that by Raghavan et al.) was related to a paper in Nature slated for publication the next day (Tuesday, 21 July, at 1pm Eastern Time [today]).The Nature press representative noted that it would be in the best interests of journalists and the public to try to coordinate embargo release times, with which we agreed. (This was after having heard from journalists earlier that morning who had seen both press packages, and thus both related papers, and wondered if we might coordinate our embargo lift time with Nature’s.) Thus, we made the plan to lift the embargo on the Raghavan et al. paper to coordinate with the embargo lift time on the Nature paper. We hope this will serve journalists interested in comprehensively reporting on the topic at hand — how genomic data is providing insights into the early peopling of the Americas.

In other words, Science shortened their embargo time after Nature rushed theirs. I asked Nature about the timing, and was sent the same message I received last month:

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.

Nature did, however, add this:

We can confirm that once we became aware that there was a related paper in Science, embargoed for later in the same week, we contacted their press office to find out whether, in the interests of reporters, they could move their publication to coincide with ours, as we were not able to move ours.  We were pleased that they were able to do this and agreed reciprocal information to be added to each organisation’s press release.

On balance, as I’ve said in the past, it’s a good thing if journals coordinate embargoes. It means a better chance of more stories with more context, and it quite frankly helps journals, since otherwise one of them may get ignored. And I’ll even give Nature the benefit of the doubt that they only became aware of the related paper on Sunday night.

But what I still can’t figure out is why Nature can claim, on the embargo time, “we were not able to move ours.” Sure, lots of balls in the air, lots of authors who don’t want to be scooped, lots of production deadlines, I get it. But this is Nature. They can move all of those deadlines to whenever they want.

Whatever happened before these papers were in their final stages — and I would be very surprised if there weren’t competition and jockeying with authors before submission — the thing to remember here is that Nature announced their embargo time after Science had already announced theirs. They had the opportunity to make their embargo time the same as Science‘s, which would have provided reporters with more than 72 hours to report and write. Instead, they moved their embargo ahead of Science‘s — and that forced Science‘s hand. So that meant everyone had less time — 42 hours or so for the Science paper instead of the usual 90+, and just 29 for the Nature paper. Sure, Science didn’t have to play along, and I would have given them points for sticking to their original embargo to give reporters more time, but I think it’s better to assume that very few reporters would write two separate stories, and that Nature‘s would be the one they covered because it was out first.

So I’m left asking, as is often the case, whether Nature‘s decision here is really consistent with their stated rational for embargoes:

Nature believes that its embargo serves scientists, journalists and the public. Our policy is to release information about our content in a way that provides fair and equal access to the media, allowing them to provide informed comment based on the paper that is to be published. Authors and their institutions’ press offices are able then to interact with the media in a well-ordered fashion ahead of publication, and benefit from the subsequent coverage.

I would say not, which leads me to wonder whether the people who make these decisions aren’t actually in the press office, but elsewhere at Nature (which would explain why the press reps couldn’t move the embargo time). Who makes the calls is of course up to Nature, but someone should take responsibility for a practice that’s not in keeping with the understanding that reporters had when they signed up for this embargo.

Written by Ivan Oransky

July 21, 2015 at 4:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Cue the music: “Ingelfingered and it feels so good.”


    July 21, 2015 at 4:25 pm

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