Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Five years on, eLife finds the lure of the embargo too strong

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Five years ago, then-new journal eLife announced that it would eschew embargoes — and my nemesis, the Ingelfinger Rule — in favor of unfettered scientific communication. I applauded the move — which I had some input into — then.

And for more than four years, as best I can tell, the journal stuck to that promise. But not in 2017.

The first rumblings came in January, when eLife published the first five papers from a project designed to attempt to replicate dozens of studies in cancer research. They didn’t technically use an embargo, but announced in advance when the papers would be available online, and offered them to reporters before that. They then ended up moving the publication date back by a few days, apparently because some reporters didn’t feel they’d been given enough time to prepare thoughtful stories.

It certainly looked, smelled, and walked like an embargo — so much so that one editor called it one in an email to me asking what I thought of the move. This particular editor was not happy about the delay, given that staffers had been pulled off other stories to make sure to have this one ready by the original embargo.

In other words, eLife had walked right up to the line, confusing — and annoying — reporters in the process, but could plausibly deny that they ever used an embargo. I raised my eyebrows, but mostly just kept watching.

When it came to the second batch of papers from the reproducibility project, however, there was no longer a pretense. From an email that went out to some reporters a week before the, um, embargo:

…we are due to publish the next two studies from the Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology in eLife at 1pm BST / 8am EDT next Tuesday, June 27.

Please see below for an embargoed press release about the results so far.

The email made it clear this was an unusual circumstance:

While we don’t typically place embargoes on eLife content, there is an embargo on this occasion due to the sensitivity of the material. This is an exception to our media policy: https://submit.elifesciences.org/html/elife_author_instructions.html?_ga=2.256136971.1810113638.1497859134-47404474.1492007018#policies

But I wasn’t quite sure I understood the decision, so I asked Jennifer McLennan, eLife’s head of external relations, to explain:

We decided to share these particular papers under embargo because there are journalists already working on the story, who are likely also working toward the release of a related paper in another journal next week.

We want these journalists to have access to individuals and material that add context to the conversation, in a way that we hope will help them as well as their readers understand the complexity of the project and not jump to premature conclusions about the reproducibility of results in cancer research.

There was indeed another study coming out in PLOS Biology, which was related enough that I could see coordinating the embargo times. That’s not unheard of, even among rival journals. But I still couldn’t really see what made the replication studies unique, I told McLennan. She responded:

You’re absolutely right that we handle other papers that benefit from additional context and interpretation, and often press-release these along with the Insights we commission, without an embargo.

The replication studies are more sensitive than most of the papers we handle, for the reason I offered below. But what moves us to action before our publication date is that journalists are working on that other paper…and our busy editors need more than a couple of days to talk to them. We consider these special circumstances.

To be honest, I still can’t see what makes these papers so sensitive, nor what makes this such a special circumstance. And it may be one off. From the original eLife email:

Also, please note that eLife will not be press releasing any future Replication Studies.

I have to say that I hope it is. Sure, I know that lots of reporters like embargoes. In a recent EurekAlert! survey of registrants, most said the presence of an embargo made a difference in whether they covered a story. (Although I would hasten to point out that asking reporters who have signed up for an embargoed press release service whether they like embargoes is a bit like asking customers in a burger joint whether they like burgers.)

So it’s understandable that eLife felt the same siren song many other journals have. But I was really rooting for it to lead the way into an embargo-free world. Perhaps it still can.


Written by Ivan Oransky

July 20, 2017 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. In my opinion, it is very naive to believe that eLife could be different in any way. It is, after all, run by people, not robotic devices The top journals like Science, Nature and PNAS have evolved from having no peer review at all. All of their practices are a a result of some kind of evolution as well. The absence of comments on the recent eLife Editorial “Scientific Publishing: Beyond scoops to best practices” (https://elifesciences.org/articles/30076) speaks volumes.

    Alexander Kraev

    July 22, 2017 at 11:26 am

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