Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

The math prize embargo that didn’t add up

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The Fields Medal

What a mess.

Last Wednesday, at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Rio, the International Mathematical Union announced the winners of the Fields Medal, which many consider the Nobel Prize of math. The announcements had been embargoed until 11:30 a.m. Rio time, which is 10:30 U.S. East Coast time.

But as David Castelvecchi, who covers math, physics, and other subjects for Nature, tells Embargo Watch:

…the official announcements were made during the opening ceremony that started at 9 am, and was broadcast on YouTube; by 10 or so all the names of the winners had been mentioned.

Not surprisingly, when news outlets saw that, they started posting their stories, and when other news outlets saw those stories, they started posting their own. That led to understandable exasperation on the part of reporters who’d honored the embargo, but really it was the IMU who was to blame: They broke their own embargo.

So, strike one for the International Mathematical Union — which has yet to respond to a request for comment, I’ll note up front in what I’ll consider strike two — and its embargo.

A close-hold embargo

There was another problem on Wednesday, however. It turns out that the IMU had forbidden reporters from speaking to anyone about the awards before the embargo lifted. From the email sent to reporters about the winners and the embargo time:

Until then, the winners should not be contacted by the press.

When the U.S. FDA tries that, it’s called trying to turn reporters into stenographers. The whole justification for an embargo, if journals are to believed, is to allow for careful and considered coverage, which includes, well, reporting. If you can’t talk to anyone before the embargo lifts, you’ll get very one-dimensional, likely uncritical, coverage by everyone who — feeling the competition breathing down their necks — feels the need to publish a story right at the embargo time.

Strike three.

Unequal rules

Then there was the other wrinkle. Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation, was able to include comments from winners and outside experts in their coverage — which would appear to have violated the IMU embargo agreement. (Full disclosure: I am paid a modest honorarium — which I donate to the Center For Scientific Integrity, the parent non-profit of Retraction Watch — to serve on the editorial advisory board of another editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation, Spectrum.)

But that wasn’t because they broke an embargo, nor, as editor in chief Thomas Lin said on Facebook, because the Simons Foundation was creating the official Fields Medal videos for the IMU. It was because Lin asked:

I asked the IMU for permission to cover this independently (and made the case that Quanta would cover this with greater depth and accuracy than other outlets) under embargo and they granted my request.

Now, it’s fine for Lin to ask for what amounted to an exclusive. Maybe he even thought that anyone who asked could go ahead and report. (According to Kenneth Chang of The New York Times, the IMU simply ignored his request.)

But what isn’t fine is for the IMU to have changed the rules for Quanta but not for anyone else. We’ve been down this road before, when the journal Neuron gave The New York Times an exclusive on a paper they had embargoed for everyone else.

What’s the big deal? Well, when reporters agree to an embargo, part of the trade — that is, holding back on coverage until the embargo lifts — is that everyone else has to do that, too. As I noted in the 2012 post about Neuron and The New York Times:

Otherwise, it’s like telling every jockey to wait for the gunshot, but opening the starting gate for one horse. When the other jockeys are watching the favored horse get a head start, they’re wondering whether they should bother with their end of the bargain next time. And who can blame them?

And it turns out that when it comes to the Fields Medal announcement — which only happens every four years — we have been down this road before, too. Just take a look at the exchange between Lin and Chang in the comments of this post.

Strike four. But the IMU was already out on strikes.

The take-home

The fact that the Fields Medal is only given out every four years is really no excuse for being rusty when it comes to an embargo. Frankly, the IMU has given up its right to subject anyone to its embargo policy — and as I’ve noted before, make no mistake, embargoes temporarily restrict the flow of information, regardless of intent.

Let me offer — only half in jest — that perhaps it is time to require some sort of Continuing Embargo Education in order to issue embargoed material, much as health professionals need credits to maintain their licenses. There’s really no way to enforce such a requirement, and I’m not sure it’s a good idea anyway.

Here’s a better one: Next time the IMU offers up an embargo agreement, reporters should just refuse. Sure, some will want the access — limited as it is — anyway. But not everyone. And who knows? Maybe that will prompt the IMU to think up a policy in which 2+2=4.

Written by Ivan Oransky

August 7, 2018 at 8:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Worth mentioning an additional detail: the medal was stolen minutes after being awarded.:

    bill williams

    August 11, 2018 at 1:30 pm

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