Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

The revolution will not be embargoed: My embargo manifesto, on Vox

with 4 comments

vox-logoI’ve finally done it: My embargo manifesto is live.

Today, Vox — thanks to Eliza Barclay and Julia Belluz — published “Why science news embargoes are bad for the public.” In its 2,000-plus words, I try to distill my thinking on embargoes, the Ingelfinger Rule, and the system that’s evolved around media coverage of science.

The title perhaps gives away the main thrust; here, in the parlance of journalism, is the nut graf:

In reality, embargoes allow journals, universities, nonprofits, and corporations to decide what’s important — and when. That should be up to journalists and, frankly, anyone who writes about science. Reporters, even with the best intentions, end up on the study-of-the-week treadmill, and they’re less creative because of the limitations of something called the Ingelfinger Rule, which scares researchers out of talking to them (more on that in a moment). Science, rather than appearing like a human enterprise, full of fits and starts in the never-ending search for knowledge, is expected to prove claims once a week, or even more frequently. And I think that’s bad for readers and viewers.

I know that not everyone agrees with me, and I hope the piece can foster more discussion on what I obviously think is an important issue. Thanks in advance for reading.


Written by Ivan Oransky

November 29, 2016 at 10:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. The embargo is not the problem. For any study there will always be a moment when it enters the public domain. Embargoes tell journalists when that’s going to be, in return for their agreement not to anticipate publication. Nobody’s forcing journalists to agree to this, and some don’t.

    What’s the alternative? Years ago a copy of Nature or The Lancet used to land on a reporter’s desk the day before publication, with no press release. Tough if you were based outside London, where the couriers didn’t deliver. We saw Science a week late, delivered by air mail. Was this better? Hardly. It demanded a lot of individual judgement on what was or wasn’t a story – and where that was lacking, the reporting was poor. Stories took a week to cross the Atlantic unless picked up by news agencies and you couldn’t always rely on their accuracy, either. Today’s reporting is more homogenous, more accurate, but less individualistic than it was back then.

    It’s now possible for journalists everywhere to see the same studies, at the same time. That’s much better, but the downside is the dominance of the press release in “framing” a story in a particular way. It’s extremely hard to escape from this frame, however hard you try. And it’s usually easier to write a story even about a bad study than it is to explain to the news desk why it isn’t worth reporting.

    We’d all like to get away from the tyranny of the journals. But suppose the Ingelfinger Rule was abolished. Who’s going to spend a day going to a conference or visiting a lab or a hospital which, with luck, might produce one story, when you can write four sitting in front of a screen and never leave your desk?

    Modern science is driven by publication. The news event is not the discovery, but the publication of that discovery. Reporters reflect that, and embargoed news releases make their job easier, more equitable and, by and large, more accurate. I don’t see it changing.

    Nigel Hawkes

    November 29, 2016 at 11:36 am

  2. “But it’s clear that a lot of the power of embargoes would go away if journalists stopped believing they had to publish a story or post a blog the minute a new study came out. Sure, I get the value of a news peg. … But it warps the public’s understanding of how science works. … [B]ecause reporters feel the need to make every finding sound important, embargoes are responsible in some large part, for example, for the weekly seesaw of ‘coffee is good for you, coffee is bad for you’ news coverage with which we’ve all become too familiar.”

    I’m not sure I follow how eliminating embargoes would change reporters’ (and editors’) beliefs, attitudes, and practices in this regard. Outlets can choose to ignore The Paper Of The Week in favor of the more in-depth reporting that would provide a more complete picture of the work and thinking around a given question. So are embargoes the problem, or is it the need to feed the 24 hour news cycle?

    Tom Ulrich

    November 30, 2016 at 1:52 pm

  3. I think the people Ivan needs to convince are not journalists — plenty of them already agree with him. At the same time, glamorous journals such as Science, Nature and NEJM are unlikely to unilaterally give up their agenda-setting power.
    Instead, he needs to persuade scientists that they can publish in prestigious journals to enhance their careers, but still erode the significance of the publication date by using preprint servers. Even though it sounds like having one’s cake and eating it too.

    Quinn Eastman

    December 1, 2016 at 9:52 am

    • It might be too soon to evaluate the effect of preprint servers, but at PNAS it has had the effect of lifting embargoes on papers almost as soon as they are done being copy edited and into page proofs. The major journals including Science and Nature are unlikely to give up their power voluntarily–even Science, published by the nonprofit AAAS, is actually driven by the profit motive in all but name–but the power of the scientific grassroots does seem to be growing.


      December 1, 2016 at 1:23 pm

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