Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Here we go again: Why Nature didn’t just post a paper on stem cell editing after the findings leaked

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Last week, Technology Review broke the story of the first gene editing of human embryos in the U.S., using the much-ballyhooed CRISPR technique. That’s a big development, for scientific and ethical reasons, so not surprisingly, other news outlets jumped on it.

The coverage prompted stem cell scientist and blogger Paul Knoepfler to wonder who leaked the paper — which, as many knew but didn’t say because of, well, an embargo, was scheduled to be published today in Nature. (The Tech Review article was published July 26, and Nature didn’t post a pre-embargo version of the paper until a few days ago.)

The coverage also prompted Nature to include this in their embargoed email to reporters on Monday about this week’s issue:

We are aware that there has been speculative reporting in the media regarding this research without access to the research paper.  Whilst the previous media coverage is in the public domain and can be reported, the information below, the paper itself and the announcement have been provided on an embargoed basis and therefore remain strictly under embargo.  We would be grateful if any questions or concerns are addressed to the Nature press office before any action is taken.  The press office can be contacted via the email address press@nature.com, which is monitored during UK and US working hours.  We thank you for your consideration in this matter.

We’ve seen this kind of thing before, so often that it’s almost become a script:

  • A news outlet publishes a speculative story based on a likely incomplete set of facts. Others follow.
  • Everyone realizes the story is at least connected to, if not based directly on, a soon-to-be-published paper. (Sometimes, that paper has been released to journalists under embargo, but sometimes it hasn’t.)
  • In communications to reporters, the journal acknowledges the connection, but parses to make the argument that the unpublished paper wasn’t the source of the story. They decline to release the paper, even when pressed by lots of reporters who follow the rules of their embargo agreements.
  • Speculation swirls, until carefully done stories appear at the scheduled embargo time. (Whether you can put the genie back in the bottle is a completely different question.)

Here’s one case, from April 2010, involving what was, as is always the case, erroneously called a “missing link.” See if you think the note Science sent to reporters looks familiar:

SPECIAL NOTE: Registered reporters, it is acknowledged that several media outlets have run “teaser” type stories based on portions of information related to fossil research described more fully and accurately in this press package. The teaser articles, appearing prior to the release of the SciencePress Package, unfortunately may in some cases over-state the forthcoming research, and thus are a disservice to the goal of communicating science accurately, thereby promoting public trust in the integrity of science. These articles do not reference Science, however, and are not based upon the peer-reviewed version of this research. The Science embargo, detailed below, remains in effect. The SciPak team wishes to commend all journalists concerned with the accurate communication of research news.

I asked Nature why they hadn’t released the gene editing paper early this week, in response to the coverage. A spokesperson tells Embargo Watch:

This was an extremely challenging situation.  It was clear from the early reporting that the reporter had not had access to the draft paper and that the information reported was limited.  Moreover, we had not released the information under embargo to journalists yet, so we had not yet given journalists the opportunity to fully read the research, confidentially seek comments from experts or attend an embargoed press briefing to discuss the research with the authors.  Finally, the paper was in the process of being corrected and was not in a state where it could be published.

This led us to conclude that the best option was to maintain the embargo for the following week, when the paper would be ready to be published, we could provide embargoed access to all journalists that wanted to accurately and fully report on the study and we could provide wide access to the scientists involved through a press briefing and further interviews.

It was an exceptionally difficult decision and our aim throughout the process was to provide science journalists from around the world with sufficient time and access to report on an important new piece of research in a responsible and considered way and to ensure that anyone could have to access the study at the time that it was reported.   The paper is not behind a paywall and is accessible to anyone who wishes to read it in perpetuity.

We are grateful to the reporters that have worked with us to report the study carefully and accurately at the time of publication.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I have to say I agree that this was an extremely challenging situation, even if I don’t agree with the journal’s decision. That’s partly for the reasons the spokesperson notes, but I would argue it’s also because of what happened with another blockbuster paper co-authored by the main author of the latest paper, Shoukhrat Mitalipov at Oregon Health & Science University, back in 2013. Cell rushed the review of that paper, which was accepted within three days of submission.

It was perhaps no surprise, then, that errors were quickly identified on PubPeer, a site that allows comments on papers, and that the paper required one of the most extensive corrections I’ve ever seen. Cell tried to argue that the rushed review had nothing to do with the missed image problems, but I found that argument remarkably unconvincing at the time — and still do.

When it comes to corrections, even late in the game, Nature tells Embargo Watch:

It’s important to us that we ensure that the papers we publish are accurate and incorporate any necessary changes from authors – this may involve minor corrections close to publication, as in this case.   

So yes, there are justifications for keeping a paper under embargo, which of course focuses media attention on the journal at a time, and in a manner, that helps the journal. Journals can always find such justifications. I appreciate that in this case, the journal acknowledges that this was “an exceptionally difficult decision.”

But I’d really be much more impressed if journals quit parsing whether a particular story was based on a reporter having a copy of an embargoed paper vs. just hearing about the findings in that paper — and simply released the paper, along with whatever caveats it saw fit. Releasing the paper early would be an acknowledgement of journals’ efforts to control the flow of scientific information. Instead, speculation swirls around seriously incomplete information, rather than what might be slightly incomplete information in a not-quite-proofread draft that could be carefully described as such.

I also wanted to know whether there would be any sanctions in this case. The spokesperson said:

As the publications did not receive embargoed information from our journal we have not immediately removed them from our systems. However, we are still investigating what happened and no final decisions have been made.

Based on what we know now, no sanctions is the right call by Nature.


Written by Ivan Oransky

August 2, 2017 at 1:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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