Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Journals: Don’t embargo papers that have already appeared as preprints. Here’s why.

with 4 comments

pnas juneThe ever-changing world of scientific publishing can be a messy and confusing place, full of unintended, if not unanticipated, consequences. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) learned that today, the hard way.

Here’s what happened: PNAS had a paper on human evolution embargoed for this coming Monday, at 3 p.m. Eastern, as is their custom. But a little after 3 p.m. Eastern today, the journal sent out an alert to its media list saying that the embargo on the paper, “Genetic evidence for natural selection in humans in the contemporary United States,” was being lifted immediately.

Why? I asked. Because, I was told, a site had reported on the study today. If you go to that site, you’ll find what seems to be a report on the PNAS paper. But if you Google Translate it from Russian — which I had to, despite my name — you won’t see any references to PNAS. You’ll see reference to a paper in bioRxiv with the same title, and with the same author, Jonathan Beauchamp, as the PNAS paper.

I was a bit puzzled, so I asked PNAS why mentioning the bioRxiv paper — which has been available since May 5 — would break the embargo:

The content of the two versions is essentially the same, which is why we decided to lift the embargo.

Fair enough, but…PNAS knew that when they embargoed the final version. And that’s what they did wrong here.

PNAS gets points for allowing researchers to post their work on preprint servers such as bioRxiv before they’re peer reviewed, something a lot of people — including me — support but that some journals find problematic. But at the risk of repeating myself, you can’t embargo something that’s freely available. And since PNAS admits that there’s very little difference between the two versions — which actually isn’t that surprising, given the results of this study — they really shouldn’t have embargoed this. (And they have been through similar situations before, albeit not with preprints.)

I’d suggest they — and other journals that will accept preprints — remember this episode next time they consider embargoing a particular paper.


Written by Ivan Oransky

July 8, 2016 at 4:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Technically anybody can embargo anything, just like anybody can sue anyone they want for any reason. The question is whether it stands up, either in court or in journalism. The real problem here is that the embargo system is linked to the now nearly defunct world of print publications. It once made sense. Now it’s slowly crumbling. Eventually some really major catastrophe will take place that will drive our dinosaur embargo system to extinction and replace it with some new warm and fuzzy creatures better adapted to our current media environment.

    Larry Husten

    July 8, 2016 at 4:25 pm

  2. I’m confused. If journals shouldn’t embargo papers that are on preprint servers, then aren’t they going to pressure us authors to not post our work on preprint servers? I post nearly all my work on arXiv but if I had a paper that I thought could be published in PNAS, and PNAS told me to avoid arXiv so that they could have the potential for a splashy press release, then I would. That seems like a bad thing for science overall but would be the choice I’d make for my career.


    July 10, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    • 1: Don’t strive to publish in PNAS. It’s a cesspool.
      2: Don’t support publishers that don’t allow preprints.
      3: Don’t do science for the press release.
      4: Don’t take any career where they care more about you getting a press release and some news coverage than about you doing quality work.


      July 10, 2016 at 2:45 pm

      • On your points 3 and 4: I’m not saying I care about the press release. I’m saying that PNAS decides that they care and that’s why they might choose to prohibit posting on preprint servers. And that I care about PNAS for other reasons having nothing to do with press releases.

        Overall I agree with what you’re saying. I wouldn’t pick PNAS (or any other journal) for the press release. For that matter, I’m in a comfortable place in my career where I don’t need to worry about prestigious journals and news coverage for myself. On the other hand, don’t I owe something to the students working with me? I would like for them to have publications in journals that will help them along their career path, and at the moment that includes PNAS. And for that matter, my impression is that funding agencies also like to see such publications. Don’t I owe it to the taxpayers who provide money for my federal grants to publish my research in a way that maximizes its impact? Which might mean PNAS, at the moment.

        To be clear, I am not arguing for PNAS in particular. I am trying to think through the issues for myself in terms of publishing only in the most ethically pure journals, as compared to the ethics of doing right by the students in my group and by the funding agencies. Happily things may be moving to where these ethical issues may eventually align, where the most ethical journals also are the most prestigious. But until that time, I worry that taking the high road in terms of publishing (your point 2 for example) might unfairly impact the students working with me.


        July 11, 2016 at 9:21 am

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