Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Does the EurekAlert! hack show us what a world without embargoes would be like?

with 23 comments

eurekalertlogoEmbargo Watch readers are likely aware by now that EurekAlert!, the press release clearinghouse run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is offline after being hacked, as I and others reported yesterday. Given EurekAlert!’s dominance in the world of embargoed releases, the episode has understandably led to some musings by science reporters about life without embargoes:

Indeed, a colleague of Grens at The Scientist, Tracy Vence, posted an illuminating Q&A with journalist Philipp Hummel yesterday in which Hummel explains that — thanks to the fact that he was on probation with EurekAlert! for a recent break — he was able to warn the service about the hacker. (Hummel had earlier written about the experience at Die Welt, in German.)

Like many of us, Hummel is conflicted about embargoes; on the one hand they give us time and access, but on the other they constrain what we end up reporting on. He tells The Scientist:

I hope this can start a debate on embargoes and the whole procedure of how science journals, likeNature, Science, all the big ones, [influence] science reporting. That’s something that needs debate, I think, and this would be a good point to start it.

That debate, of course, is one that Embargo Watch has been engaged in since 2010, and which others, particularly Vincent Kiernan, have fostered long before that. And perhaps coverage of this hack will raise some eyebrows among reporters who don’t cover science, prompting questions in newsrooms. That would indeed be welcome.

But the EurekAlert! outage seems unlikely to be prolonged, and its effects may be blunted by the fact that the services is still sending out embargoed headlines, and offering to provide materials to credentialed reporters. More importantly, we’ve already seen plenty of vulnerabilities in journals’ embargo (and related Ingelfinger Rule) practices, and glimpses of what a more persistent embargo-free world would look like, thanks to preprints.

So, as is often the case, time will tell. And I’ll continue to monitor developments, although as regular readers know, Retraction Watch has consumed more than its share of the blogging part of my time and brain, leaving coverage here thinner than I’d like. In the meantime, here’s one suggestion: A study that makes use of this EurekAlert! downtime much the way an earlier study of science reporting made use of a New York Times strike.

In that 1991 paper, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, David Phillips and colleagues

…compared the number of references in the Science Citation Index to articles in theNew England Journal of Medicine that were covered by The New York Times with the number of references to similar articles that were not covered by the Times. We also performed the comparison during a three-month period when the Times was on strike but continued to prepare an “edition of record” that was not distributed; doing so enabled us to address the possibility that coverage in the Times was simply a marker of the most important articles, which would therefore be cited more frequently, even without coverage in the popular press.

They found that

Articles in the Journal that were covered by the Times received a disproportionate number of scientific citations in each of the 10 years after the Journal articles appeared.

A later study by Kiernan expanded the work, with somewhat different results.
Perhaps the “natural experiment” of this outage gives us a chance to see — keeping the likely blunting noted above in mind, along with deeper cultural issues such as the Ingelfinger Rule — what effects living without embargoes have on journalists’ behavior. I’m game to work on that.

Written by Ivan Oransky

September 15, 2016 at 8:30 am

Posted in eurekalert policy

23 Responses

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  1. I know I am an increasingly unpopular minority here but I speak from (gulp) decades of experience. Embargoes do help science journalists report stories better, and they give us a modicum of control over our lives. If embargoes go away, watch what little control you have over your work schedule go with it. Only very large organizations with large science reporting staffs will be able to handle it. These organizations already dominate coverage – those of us who have made a living making do with smaller staffs will not be able to compete at all, and what’s left of diversity in science and medical reporting will disappear. They also allow specialty beat journalists to “claim” these stories. If you think TV news is bad now, just wait till all science and medical news is fair game for any non-specialist reporter or producer to claim.

    Maggie Fox

    September 15, 2016 at 8:58 am

    • Embargoes might seem like a necessary evil within the system of science news as we’re practicing it today, but I think that’s all the more reason for us to rethink our approach to it. Ditching embargoes and changing our definition of what constitutes science news could result in coverage that is better and more creative, as I argued in a piece for The Guardian a few years ago: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/jan/26/science-online-2011-journalism-blogs

      Please note that in that column, I’m talking about a self-imposed embargo on publishing new study results as an unrealistic *thought experiment*, not an actual policy. There will always be a need to report on some new results when they’re released. My point is that, embargoed releases in hand, we currently rush to spread the word of some results along with everyone else, and yet if we took even a little more time, we might not see a reason to publish about them at all.

      John Rennie

      September 15, 2016 at 9:55 am

      • Here’s the problem, John: I’ve gotten around embargoes, I try not to focus on them, I look for other types of stories. But who says no to a good exclusive? That’s all the embargo system is: a negotiated exclusive with lots and lots of reporters. I think reporters should be less dependent on them. But the idea we shouldn’t agree to them? How does that benefit me or my readers? Why does changing our coverage mean saying no to embargoes?

        Matthew Herper

        September 15, 2016 at 1:36 pm

      • Matthew, I take your point. (Although “a negotiated exclusive with lots and lots of reporters” is an oxymoron, isn’t it?) I don’t think anybody disagrees there are select advantages to taking advantage of embargoes, especially for hard-pressed newsrooms. But what bargain are we striking in the process? Why should we respect their desire to control when we publish the story when the discovery will be public knowledge in a week? We’re not getting exclusivity in return; we’re agreeing to be part of a pack that’s rushing out stories and then moving on to the next embargoed news dangled in front of us. We only do it because we *know* that most of us will follow the easy path and we’re afraid of looking like we’re left behind. That’s why I’m saying it would be beneficial for us to collectively question why we so highly value news of studies that by definition haven’t been seen and evaluated by most workers in the field, and that frequently turn out to be wrong or exaggerated. Why does a “negotiated exclusive” that we share with every other journalist in EurekAlert matter so much?

        John Rennie

        September 15, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    • (I should add that I, too, am focusing on journal embargoes, with damage compounded by the Ingelfinger rule, and not on embargoed peeks from companies, which can be a different matter.)

      John Rennie

      September 15, 2016 at 2:44 pm

  2. I respectfully disagree with Maggie. I think that science writers should learn to live without embargoes. Other journalists survive without this bizarre paternalistic system just fine. As for small versus large outfits, I’d point you to the science news team at Buzzfeed, a small, new organization. They have pretty much stayed away from the embargo treadmill, and they’ve instead worked hard to find stories of their own that they can completely dominate. And they’ve put out great work. Without embargoes, I would predict that we would have a far more interesting variety of stories about science for people to read, rather than an arbitrary set decreed by a handful of journals.

    carlwzimmer

    September 15, 2016 at 9:22 am

    • I agree with Carl here. It would require working differently — but I very much think we NEED to differently. The current sci-jo ecosphere puts out some great stuff — and Maggie Fox is notable for being among the best. But there’s far too much science journalism driven by an embargo and publicity system that prefilters news, assumes and pushes the assumption that what’s new is what’s important, and, because it’s largely driven by press release, preselects as newsworthy the ‘findings’ that are thought to be most enticing. It’s all about new findings. And the journalistic and cultural obsession with new findings in science is just toxic. It promotes overattention to findings that prove false and obscures deeper or steadier looks. Not a fan.

      David Dobbs

      September 15, 2016 at 9:36 am

    • Not really true, Carl. There’s not a paternalistic system of journals with embargoes, but embargoes from companies represent an extremely big part of business journalism. I agree that journalists should avoid the embargo treadmill, but that’s different from suggesting that they should stop looking at the embargoed studies until after they are published.

      Matthew Herper

      September 15, 2016 at 1:39 pm

      • Matt, you raise a good point. Obviously, embargoes can pop up all over the universe of journalism. But I’m only talking about the embargoes of science journals, which arbitrarily set a day and time when a batch of particular papers become news–a system that everyone ends up following, and which leads to lots and lots of problems that you don’t find with other sorts of embargoes in other kinds of journalism. Frankly, I think it encourages a kind of laziness in science journalism. We just sit back and wait for the top journals to inform us each week what constitutes news, and then we all write pieces in lockstep.

        carlwzimmer

        September 15, 2016 at 1:56 pm

  3. I also respectfully disagree with Maggie’s comments, specifically with the assertion that organizations with smaller staffs will not be able to compete. I work at Quanta Magazine, a very small (6 total staff members) digital publication that focuses on advances in basic science. The embargo system has proven to be an immense frustration, specifically because of the Ingelfinger rule that Ivan refers to in his post. In theory, the Ingelfinger rule prevents scientists from *seeking out* news coverage. In practice, researchers who have submitted a paper to a journal such as Science, Nature or Cell will refuse to engage with a reporter, even if that reporter approached the researcher (perhaps after seeing a conference talk), for fear that doing so will put the paper’s publication in jeopardy. (Or they’ll talk, but only after gaining assurances that nothing will be published until the embargo eventually lifts—whenever that might be.) The prohibition is especially ridiculous in the age of the bioarxiv, when researchers may release a preprint then refuse to comment on it. Numerous times our reporters have learned of exciting work being done but have had to sit on the story until all the press releases are written and the emails blasted out. I am currently holding a story that was written and edited in January of this year, but which we can’t publish because one of the studies that’s mentioned has been going through some sort of rigmarole at one of the big journals. The embargo system punishes reporters who have their claws locked so deep into their beats that they know about the important stories before the press offices do. It levels the playing field, yes. But at too great of a cost.

    Michael Moyer (@mmoyr)

    September 15, 2016 at 10:12 am

    • May I just point out that a staff of 6 sounds huge to someone like me. And people covering breaking news for news organizations that cover stuff real-time – such as wire services, large newspapers and television networks – are in a very different position from those who take a slower approach and who have the luxury of taking days or weeks to finesse their stories. Whatever specialists think about what “should” happen, the reality is that news desks will cover what journals put out as “news”, whether the science and medical beat specialists are involved or not. They will be vulnerable to the spin of the first press release.

      Maggie Fox

      September 15, 2016 at 10:22 am

    • Spot on, Michael. The Ingelfinger Rule has just horrible effects, and has been a major obstacle for me many times. Researchers are terrified the sky will fall if they talk to me about something. In some cases, they suddenly hesitate, once a paper is in submission, from talking more to me about work we might have been discussing for months or even years.

      David Dobbs

      September 15, 2016 at 10:29 am

      • We’ve had instances where a reporter is working on a broad, comprehensive story, talking to a lot of researchers over a period of time, only to have one of the researchers, late in the game, say something like “I’m submitting a new paper to Journal X, so you can’t use anything I said until the paper gets published.” And then we’re left to sort out whether to publish the story with that researcher’s comments (and burn a bridge), remove that researcher’s work from the piece, or hold it.

        Michael Moyer (@mmoyr)

        September 15, 2016 at 11:17 am

    • Agree with this: The Ingelfinger rule is bad for journalism.

      Matthew Herper

      September 15, 2016 at 1:40 pm

  4. It seems to me that the vast majority of embargoes are completely unnecessary. In general most embargoes are used as PR devices to whet the appetite of journalists and to get them to write about something because they fear they’ll miss out. It’s defensive journalism and it leads to us being herded around like sheep.

    Perhaps we need to end the use of routine embargoes. You know, the routine or weekly email from all the journals and meetings where everything is made available beforehand on embargo.

    We could still have embargoes but they would need to be one time deals only, but I confess I’m not at all clear how that would work.

    Larry Husten

    September 15, 2016 at 10:58 am

  5. I have mixed feelings about embargoes. I happen to enjoy breaking news, so I do appreciate that embargoes allow me to do research and talk to lots of people before a story is published. As a freelancer writing primarily for the web, embargoes ensure I have the time to do my job well, rather than scrambling and worrying some other website will have it first and get the clicks.

    But on the other hand, I don’t do very much embargoed news anymore. There are a few reasons why. I mostly cover physics and astronomy, so many of my story ideas come off the preprint server, by combing journals that don’t have press packs, or by just working my beat and talking to people. Everyone covers a big embargoed story about Pluto. If I want to differentiate myself, and make myself more valuable as a freelancer, I’d better find something more unique.

    Maggie’s right that news desks will cover what journals highlight as news, and that their coverage will be vulnerable to the first press release, but I think embargoes make this worse, not better. A splashy package of press releases is almost guaranteed to drive coverage. Is it possible that people might miss interesting research if it’s not highlighted in a press release? Maybe. But good beat reporters know how to read scientific papers and catch important findings. If we’re doing our jobs well, we’ll be plugged in anyway.

    rebeccaboyle

    September 15, 2016 at 11:06 am

  6. For what it’s worth (probably not much) I’m pretty much on Maggie’s side … A year ago I switched over to an online news operation (GeekWire) that really focuses on tech news rather than science news. I’m an outlier. There are lots of cases where tech companies (including aerospace companies) work on an embargoed basis. In a sense, it’s the same with movie reviews. So I don’t think the arrangement is that bizarre. Maybe it’s more wide-reaching with EurekAlert, just because there’s more aggregation.

    I think there are two different sets of questions – first, about advance embargoed access for trusted actors; and second, about the ability of sources to discuss their work in advance of release. On the second point, the folks in charge of releasing the information naturally want to have some control … whether it’s a scientific journal or Microsoft or HBO. But there are lots of complicating issues. (For example, research that’s posted openly to BioArxiv or ArXiv … or a project that someone has been covering even before a paper has been submitted … or a story based on raw imagery released by a space mission … or, ahem, a leak to a German magazine about a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri.)

    I’m fine with the way things have worked out so far, but if publishers want to change the system, I’ll adjust. And I’m glad to hear that EurekAlert is getting things in order. That site provides a lot more than just the embargoed journal information. I’d argue that the non-embargoed resources are even more valuable for public understanding of science, and for folks like me who are just trying to keep up (like Alice in the Red Queen’s race).

    Alan Boyle

    September 15, 2016 at 1:50 pm

  7. I’ve supported embargoes in the past because, having worked for small publishers with just one or two editorial staff, the embargoes gave us a chance to work on an article and to try not to get left behind by the big news outlets such as the BBC or wherever that have more resources. The embargoes levelled the playing field and, for big stories where the results have been kept under wraps such as the discovery of Proxima b or the discovery of gravitational waves that everyone is going to want to cover, I still think that embargoes are useful. They are fair for everyone and they do help journalists schedule their work better if they have a heads up that there’s a big story on the horizon.

    However, I’ve changed my mind a little bit. A lot of embargoes are unnecessary, particularly for more niche papers and press releases that are only going to be of interest to the speciality press. Why should they be embargoed just to coincide with journal publication? Readers don’t care about when the journals are published. Like others, I’ve been in the situation where someone has presented a result at a conference, or published their paper on a public pre-print server, but have been unable to talk to me about it because the journal they’ve submitted to won’t let them. It’s a nonsense.

    I think part of the problem is that we all get sucked into this race to publish stories as fast as we can and keep up with everyone else. I don’t think that’s the fault of embargoes per se, but of press releases in general. It’s easy to fall into a rhythm of continually using press releases for material, especially when you’ve only got a small editorial team who doesn’t have time to go out and find stories from other sources because they have to publish a certain amount of news each day, while competing with the big news outlets. But even if I publish at the same time as, say, the BBC, they’re still going to get more hits than me, so why not take my time, research an angle and tell a unique story a few days later and probably still get just a many readers as I would have publishing early? If I can have the luxury of doing that, and not worrying about embargoes, then that would be ideal, but I also recognise that for many of us in this business we don’t have that luxury.

    I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying I’m not sure what the answer is. I do think embargoes have their place – it’s just a matter of figuring out where that place is.

    Keith Cooper

    September 15, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    • That’s a really thoughtful answer. We also might have two separate issues here — the big journals’ control of scientific and medical news, an issue that includes the despised Ingelfinger Rule — and the question of embargoes in general.

      Maggie Fox

      September 15, 2016 at 3:31 pm

  8. As per Maggie’s point, there are at least two different issues here. One is the journals bullying scientists using the Ingelfinger rule in ways that keep them from talking to reporters about their work. The other is whether reporters should accept journal embargoes.

    I think scientists dramatically overestimate the real power that journals have here. Big journals are as desperate to make sure they get important papers as scientists are to land them there. A paper on BioRxiv can now be as big as one in Nature. But the rules are written for a pre-Internet age when the journals really did hold all the cards.

    If there was going to be an organized effort to protest this system and seek change by refusing journal embargoes en masse, I think I’d support that. If enough other big name journalists and/or publications were game, that is. And we’d need to codify exactly what changes we want made.

    But I don’t see any benefit in journalists simply abandoning journal embargoes. The mere existence of these embargoes doesn’t force anyone to be on a treadmill where all they cover is embargoed journal stories. It does not force journalists to write at precisely the embargo time. But a journalist who does not agree to the embargo is deciding not to have access to papers when their peers will. There’s simply no advantage to doing this, long-term. Embargoes are a reality, because they benefit both journalists and journals. If the journals are getting the better part of the deal, that’s the journalists’ fault, but it means we need to negotiate, not just throw up our hands and walk off.

    The problem with the idea of “doing away with embargoes” is that there’s not a mechanism for doing so. So some group of science journalists stops getting journal embargoes. Others will still agree to them, and those writers will publish news first, and they’ll find readers as a result. A source with an exclusive has a lot of power. The situation is no different here.

    Matthew Herper

    September 15, 2016 at 9:49 pm

  9. I’m increasingly seeing papers posted on arXiv with “to be published in Nature X” in the comment field, and of course the researchers behind that work refuse to talk to me because of Nature’s embargo, which is absurd. We just run the story anyway, with comment from outsider researchers.

    As far as I’m aware, this has never resulted in a paper being pulled from a Nature publication. Can anyone give an example of Ingelfinger actually being applied, rather than just being held over researchers’ heads as a vague threat?

    Jacob Aron

    September 16, 2016 at 5:57 am

  10. I come at this from another angle, that of a writer in an institutional communications office. Embargoes absolutely have their ups and downs, but I think that, at least when it comes to writing and (for PIOs, communicating) about new studies, there will (and should) always be one limiting time-based factor…the date & time a given study’s actually published and/or it’s findings and data are publicly available.

    Admittedly, what counts as “published” is becoming squishier. Is it when the preprint available? When the advanced online pre-corrected proof been released? When [insert scenario here]?

    For stories that cover a larger body of work and which aren’t linked inextricably to an individual paper, this may be less of an issue. But announcing or writing about a single study, embargoed or not, if the paper or data can’t be cited and aren’t publicly available (at least to journal subscribers in most cases) for readers to access and read for themselves (even though the vast majority likely won’t), I think it greatly reduces the value in covering them. And, frankly, I think it’s irresponsible unless the reader can go back, look at the source, and tell for themselves whether the story/press release/etc. got it right.

    Side note: I’m surprised to see that, as far as I can tell, I’m the only institutional comms/PIO type commenting here….

    Tom Ulrich

    September 16, 2016 at 2:11 pm


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