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