Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

The American Diabetes Association seems to be confused about what “public” means

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Last month, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) stepped in it a bit.

In a move that predictably richocheted around Twitter — and into the medical trade press — the ADA politely, but publicly, asked attendees of its recent annual meeting to take down photos they’d posted of conference slides. Tweets were fine, as long as they didn’t include pictures of slides.

The policy — a version of “freely available, but embargoed,” drew widespread and deserved criticism. In response, the ADA’s Linda Cann defended the policy, but said it would be reevaluated:

The Association understands and appreciates the desire to publicly share photos of research slides and posters presented at Scientific Sessions, especially considering today’s technology and the prevalence of instant communication via social media. However, all research slides and posters are the legal property of each of the research authors and their study team, not the Association. Many presentations include unpublished data, and while researchers are eager to share it with their peers through their presentation at Scientific Sessions, they maintain legal ownership of their research work (intellectual property).

As the convener of Scientific Sessions, a professional education meeting for the diabetes health care and research community, the Association is legally obligated to protect the legal rights of the study authors who submit their work for presentation.

Upon registration, all attendees agree to the meeting policies, which includes following all local and federal laws. This includes those related to the intellectual property rights of all parties.

While the Association appreciates the personal perspectives of attendees whether through social media or other means, we must adhere to all local and federal laws.

Reversing this policy could unwittingly dismantle the long-standing discourse and engagement of medical and scientific research meetings around the world. This dramatic shift could also restrict medical research to being published manuscripts in order to protect the authors’ legal ownership rights.

After this year’s meeting, we will reevaluate the policy and our legal obligations to the researchers who present at Scientific Sessions.

Of course, they’d been criticized for doing the same thing exactly a year before. By me, in fact, in a Bloomberg story. But maybe the chorus of complaints this year will prompt change. We’ll see.

In the meantime, the most recent episode prompted me to dig a bit more into the ADA’s embargo policies. And I didn’t like what I found.

Longtime readers of Embargo Watch — and I do mean longtime; more on that in a moment — may recall that the ADA has appeared in these pages before. In 2011, I praised the scientific society for reversing a “freely available but embargoed” policy for conference abstracts. A number of societies, from the American Gastroenterological Association to European Associaton for the Study of the Liver, have at one point or another reversed such policies over the years. Those changes often came after criticism from Embargo Watch or others.

But it turns out that in 2014, the ADA reversed itself again, and returned to a “freely available but embargoed” policy. Here’s the policy for the most recent meeting:

All science being presented at the Association’s 77th Scientific Sessions (this applies to all information included in the abstract supplement of Diabetes) is embargoed and remains confidential/not for public information or release until the conclusion of the session in which it is being presented.

All abstracts scheduled for oral presentation are embargoed until the conclusion of the session in which the abstract is being presented at the 77th Scientific Sessions. All abstracts presented as Posters in the Poster Hall or Published-Only are embargoed until 10:00 a.m. PST, Saturday, June 10, 2017. The Embargo Policy applies to all abstracts regardless of whether information is obtained from another source. Failure to abide by the Embargo Policy may result in suspension of media credentials at the 77th Scientific Sessions as well as future meetings, and may also impact the ability to receive advance press materials for future meetings. Any abstracts in violation of the Embargo Policy will be withdrawn from the Scientific Sessions.

Please note: Abstracts will be available for review online under embargo one week before the meeting, on Friday, June 2, 2017, at 5:00 p.m. Eastern time. The early availability of the abstracts is for the sole purpose of assisting attendees in creating their itineraries for the meeting; all science remains confidential/not for public information until the applicable embargo lift time (See “Embargo Policy” section above).

The Embargo Policy will be strictly enforced. Media found to be in violation of the Embargo Policy will have their credentials revoked, and they will be barred from future Scientific Sessions

The Association reserves the right to adjust the embargo as needed.

I asked Cann for an explanation. Here’s what she said:

In 2011, because of the increasing number of embargo breaks, and concerns expressed by the Scientific Sessions Planning Committee, it was decided that the abstracts, title and bodies, would be embargoed until the first day of the meeting, Friday June 24. Nothing was released in advance.

In 2012, we went back to releasing the abstract titles 30 days in advance of the meeting, and the abstract bodies 2 weeks in advance. The change was made to address the concerns of attendees that they needed time to plan their schedules in advance.

In 2014, we revised the policy because of the increase in embargo breaks that had occurred in 2012 and 2013. We still released the abstract titles 30 days in advance, but the abstract bodies were not made public until one week in advance of the meeting.

The policy says that even while the abstracts are freely available online, they’re embargoed. And that, dear reader, makes no sense. The ADA does some terrific things — in another venue, Adam Marcus and I awarded them our first Doing The Right Thing Award for fighting a legal battle — but not in this case. There’s no good justification for keeping an embargo on freely available information — unless you’re trying to ensure press coverage when you want it. And that means you’re putting your own needs ahead of the free flow of scientific information.

You might say the ADA wants to have its cake and eat it too. A sugar-free cake, of course.

There’s another big problem with the policy: The ADA will consider an embargo broken “regardless of whether information is obtained from another source.” Oh really? How does that work, exactly? And what right does the ADA have to say that a reporter who digs something up without their help is breaking an embargo? JAMA tried that in the early aughts. It didn’t go well for them.

So why am I just noticing the ADA’s 2014 change? Well, here’s one potential explanation: Longtime readers of Embargo Watch may also recall that while in its heyday, the blog featured about a dozen posts per month, that number fell to 1-2 per month by the end of 2014. That wasn’t for lack of interest; it was for lack of time, since Retraction Watch had by then been taking up more and more of the time I could spend blogging.

That, for better or for worse, is still true. Thankfully, others still find these subjects worth writing about, too, calling attention to sometimes uncomfortable issues embargoes raise. But I have to say I’ve been noticing that those who embargo scientific information have been creeping back to the behavior I used to criticize.

I don’t have a solution for this yet. But I hope I can still shine the light when it needs to be shined.

Written by Ivan Oransky

July 17, 2017 at 9:30 am

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