Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

When permissions get in the way: Why a Science journal removed accompanying material before embargo

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Last Tuesday, the AP’s longtime medical reporter Lauran Neergaard realized she had a problem.

Well, not a problem, exactly, but an issue with a story she was working on about a new way to deliver drugs to the brain. Neergaard wanted to use images that EurekAlert!, a frequently used clearinghouse for press releases, had provided along with a study on the subject that was embargoed until Wednesday, January 24. But when she’d sent the AP’s standard permission form to the press office at MIT, where the researchers were based, she was told they didn’t have the right to let media such as the AP use the images.

So, she asked EurekAlert! whether they could grant permission. And that’s when everyone involved learned just how complicated such rights can get.

A staffer at AAAS, which runs EurekAlert! and the MedPak that contained the embargoed study, looped in the lead author of the study, Canan Dagdeviren, to make sure that media rights were included. Dagdeviren, in turn, said staff at MIT News had been the ones to provide the photos.

But it turned out that while MIT had the right to distribute the images, they didn’t have the rights to give them to other outlets that might distribute them. That meant when Neergaard asked the photographer — Scott Brauer — for permission, Brauer denied it, saying it was outside of his agreement with MIT. (It turns out that another outlet that does not distribute images along with their stories — say, a newspaper with just one website — could have downloaded the photos from the MIT News site and used them.)

As a result, EurekAlert! took the images out of the MedPak. Here’s the message that went out to reporters on January 23, less than 24 hours before the embargo was scheduled to lift:

Please note that multimedia related to the Science Translational Medicine study “Miniaturized neural system for chronic, local intracerebral drug delivery,” by Canan Dagdeviren et al. has been removed from the 24 January MedPak.

Reporters who downloaded and were planning to include any of these materials in related coverage may not use them. We apologize for this inconvenience. The paper by Canan Dagdeviren et al. remains embargoed until 2:00 pm U.S. Eastern Time on Wednesday, 24 January.

The upshot? Neergaard’s story still ran with a photo, which is attributed to Dagdeviren and isn’t one of those by Brauer included in the MIT News package.

If there’s a lesson here other than “rights and permissions are complicated,” it’s that it always pays to check, as Neergaard did. The only suggestion I’d have for EurekAlert! is to provide some information about why something is removed when it contacts reporters. Meagan Phelan, the executive editor of the Science Press Package, said she agreed:

Yes, I do see how providing an explanation in our original reporter notification – specifying that we removed images from theScience Translational Medicine press package because we retroactively learned that rights to distribute those images weren’t intact – would have been helpful, relieving any notion that something more problematic (something nefarious) was at play. My thinking had been that we could provide that information separately to any reporters who followed up with concerns (as it turned out, none did follow up). Maybe more pressing to me, I didn’t want to issue a note to all reporter registrants that made it seem like we were saying we didn’t have rights in a way that suggested we were putting the blame on an author (while our permission form for multimedia clearly requests author sign-off on distribution rights, making it incumbent on the author to understand those rights, it can be a challenging space to fully comprehend). One thing my team will endeavor to do, going forward, is to conduct more individual follow-up with authors who sign permissions forms for imagery/video with a photographer byline; we could doublecheck, in such cases, that distribution rights truly were part of the photographer’s agreement.


Written by Ivan Oransky

January 30, 2018 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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