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The Embargo Should Go

The Embargo Should Go
August 21, 2006

When they’re not praising the embargo system -- under which science journals provide journalists with advance copies of newsworthy articles, but set strict timelines on when  that information can be shared -- science and medical journalists often bitterly complain that they are its prisoners. For example, Natalie Angier of The New York Times claims that the embargo system gives journal editors "a stranglehold on journalistic initiative." Embargoes do exert great influence over what gets covered and how, but the embargo system is hardly a tyranny of journals over journalists. Journalists are enthusiastic participants in the embargo system and act to keep it functioning. In short, if journalists are in a stranglehold, it is a self-inflicted stranglehold -- and one that does not serve the public interest.

It need not be this way. Journalists could do end runs around the embargo, if they wanted. "Any decent journalist knows what’s in Nature next week," says David Whitehouse, science editor for the BBC’s Web site. That point is exemplified by Robin McKie, science reporter for The London Observer. He writes for a paper that publishes only on Sundays; because of the embargo’s timing, journal articles seem like old news by the time his paper publishes. Consequently, McKie refuses embargoed access to journals but nevertheless has broken news of important embargoed studies such as the cloning of Dolly and the results of decoding of the human genetic sequence. Much of his reporting, he says, is based on talks given by researchers at open meetings.

What accounts for the embargo’s staying power? One factor, quite clearly, is the extraordinary deference that the scientific and medical establishments receive in society. Few other institutions are given the freedom of action in society that science and medicine have enjoyed. Science and medical journalists have not been immune to the immense gravitational forces exerted by science and medicine, and the embargo system is symptomatic of the deference that journalists pay to the scientific and medical establishment.

From the beginnings of modern science and medical reporting in the 1930s and 1940s, journalists were eager to prove their bona fides to scientists and medical researchers so that those researchers would cooperate with the journalists. Journalists emphasized that they sought to be accurate (as the researchers defined accuracy), and asked the researchers to provide advance copies of their papers to facilitate these efforts. Although the scientific and medical establishments at first were slow to respond, eventually researchers and officials saw the advantages of controlling the flow of news about science and medicine; together, journalists and the research establishment forged the social construction that is now known as the embargo system.

Supporters of the embargo say that the embargo promotes coverage of important scientific research. But these well-meaning proponents of the embargo system confuse what is good for the scientific and medical establishments with what is good for society. Similarly, journalists erroneously equate what is in their interest with what is in the public interest.

Undoubtedly, the scientific establishment benefits handsomely from the unending torrent of news coverage about research being published in scientific and medical journals. The pattern of news coverage signals to readers and viewers -- not to mention lawmakers, business leaders, and others -- that science and medicine are important. Whether the research being reported is “good news” (for example, drug X is an effective treatment for disease Y) or “bad news” (Z causes cancer), the scientific and medical establishments are always cast in a positive light, as the font of the new finding. Some think that breathless coverage of the latest research might even help steer some individuals toward careers in science or medicine.

But media coverage of research journals often amounts to little more than highbrow infotainment: What’s the latest theory about the extinction of the dinosaurs? What’s the newest thing found to cause cancer? Look at the cool photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope! These are the types of subjects that dominate embargo-controlled news reporting about science and medicine.

Journalists and their media organizations -- particularly those with daily deadlines, such as newspapers, network television, and Web sites -- also benefit from the embargo. The embargo supplies news on a dependable schedule keyed to the production constraints of news organizations: if it’s Thursday, it’s time for a newspaper article about some paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine. The embargo reduces the stress on journalists from having to rush a story into print or on the air, and it also reduces the possibility that the journalist will be scooped by a competitor. The news peg provided by the embargo (“In a paper published today in Science...”) also makes it easier for journalists to convince their editors to run certain research stories. This news peg supplies an appearance of sudden and urgent newsworthiness to a research paper that had been conceived, executed, written, reviewed, and rewritten over a period of months, if not years. By keying the news story to the event of journal publication, the embargo system capitalizes on the fact that science and medical journalists and their editors -- like other journalists -- rely heavily on timeliness as a criterion in defining what is news and what is not. In fact, science and medical journalists are fully aware of the artificiality of the embargo’s news peg, but rely on it as a way to get research news into print and on the air.

This is a long-standing problem in journalism about science and medicine. “To write a story saying that ‘X’ was discovered today is a fiction,” Howard Simons, then a science writer for The Washington Post, said almost 40 years ago. “The today lead is something most of us do because we are still trapped in traditional ideas of newspapering. At a scientific meeting there may be hundreds of papers delivered, all of them important. There is no reason why we shouldn’t pick up one of those papers three weeks later and do a story about it. But the traditional light bulb flashes on in our minds and says it’s old if it’s not hung up like a coat on a news peg.” Although the urgent demand for a news peg -- even an artificial one -- for science and medical news is not new, the embargo perpetuates the problem by giving journalists and their media organizations an unending stream of such pegs, so many that a lazy journalist could write only about journal articles if he or she chose.

Journalists’ role in perpetuating and even extending journal embargoes is illustrated by the recent history of embargoes at online journals published by BioMed Central. Like a few other innovative journal publishers, BioMed Central has seized on the Internet as a medium for publishing research journals at lower cost and with wider reach than traditional journals. These new online journals are known as open-access journals. One of its hallmarks is that it publishes a journal article as soon as peer review and editing are complete, without the lengthy delays that sometimes characterize printed journals.

When BioMed Central started in 2000, it did not offer advance embargoed access to journalists; journalists had to wait to read a journal article until it was publicly posted on BioMed Central’s Web site. But journalists ignored its journal articles.

Consequently, in 2003, BioMed Central tweaked its editorial processes so it could start offering journalists a brief period of embargoed access -- a few days to at most a week. Since the change, BioMed Central has seen a marked increase in press coverage.

The fact that some journalists and scientists benefit from the embargo does not mean that the public benefits from it as well. Indeed, the embargo works against the public interest in many ways. One is in how the embargo steers journalists away from covering science and medicine as institutions with messy problems, such as fraud, mistreatment of human subjects, failed research, and misplaced priorities. Journalists who are chasing after the latest embargoed journal article do not have time to investigate the workings of science and medicine in this way.

Indeed, the central problem with embargoes -- and the reason that the embargo system should be eliminated -- is that embargoes are a distraction for journalists and their media organizations, which diverts them from covering what really matters. "To survive, reporters become dependent on the daily cascade of embargoed research papers, e-mailed press releases, university tip sheets, and conference abstracts,” says Robert Lee Hotz, a science reporter at the Los Angeles Times. “The goal of all of us ought to be to try to get around embargoes and pack-aged science journalism by finding new ways to get our collective noses under the tent,” according to Cristine Russell, former science and medical reporter for The Washington Star and The Washington Post. “I think that we should not have such herd journalism.... I am very concerned that we get very lazy and complacent by sitting around waiting for the journals to deliver us the news that something’s happening in science.... I think people should get out and cover science.”

Of course, no one forces journalists to report embargoed stories. In part, the embargo’s focus on late-breaking research appeals to the personal and professional interests of many science and medical journalists, who entered the field to report about the wonders of research -- not the bare-knuckles reality of the research world. “Most science reporters tend to behave rather like sports writers: they have chosen their topic out of love for it,” the sociologist Dorothy Nelkin has observed.

The embargo system also works against the public interest in the way that it misleads the public about science and medicine. The embargo creates a torrent of news that draws excessive public attention to most research. Put simply, journalists should ignore most of the journal articles that they now cover so energetically. Most journal articles are but single dots in the pointillist enterprise that is the scientific method -- but the breathless coverage catalyzed by the embargo system often gives the impression that each week’s paper is a major breakthrough. Journalists pay much less attention to later studies that play down the findings.

The best science and medical journalists recognize the inherent uncertainty in any piece of research. “It takes repeated observations or experiments, usually attacking the mystery from different angles with results all pointing to the same answer, before honest researchers begin to believe that they actually understand something new,” says Boyce Rensberger, a former science journalist for The Washington Post and now the director of a mid-career science-journalism fellowship program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The trump card for embargo supporters is accuracy: News about science and medicine is so difficult to research and write, goes this argument, that journalists need time to do the job correctly -- or the public could be harmed by inaccurate reporting. Susan Turner-Lowe, former director of public affairs at the National Academy of Sciences, describes it this way: "Journalists have traded accuracy for scoops.” Among many proponents of embargoes, being critical of embargoes therefore is tantamount to supporting erroneous reporting.

But the fact is that many other journalists work effectively without embargoes, day after day. Consider the complexity and implications of other stories covered by journalists who do not specialize in science and medicine: the latest Supreme Court decision, a tax bill passed by Congress, a massive airplane accident, and others. Each of these stories rivals many science and medical stories in technical complexity, the difficulty that journalists may have in reaching expert sources for comment, and the impact on readers or listeners if inaccurate information is reported. Yet reporters uncomplainingly cover these and a myriad of other stories without the helping hand of an embargo. Even Nature’s Peter Wrobel concedes that the embargo is not essential for good coverage of science and medicine. “It doesn’t require five or six days, or even three, to write most stories,” he says. Alexandra Witze, a science reporter for The Dallas Morning News, says that the accuracy rationale for journal embargoes is “insulting” to science journalists. “It assumes that we are incapable of doing our job as journalists in any other field are.”

However, views such as hers are scarce among science and medical journalists, who agree with journal publishers that embargoes serve the public interest because embargoed advance access to scholarly journals promotes accurate, orderly journalism about science and medicine. This is not necessarily the case. Journalists who operate by a learned set of professional norms and practices are likely to make the same mistakes in a story whether they have a day or a week to prepare it. Moreover, an individual reporter may not use all the additional time that the embargo provides. With an embargo of several days, the reporter may work on the embargoed story in bits and pieces, fitting that story around other stories that the reporter is covering.

Journalists do have an ethical obligation to society to be accurate, but accuracy is more than the technical accuracy of figures and scientific terms. Taken as a whole, science reporting should provide an accurate picture of scientific and medical research, particularly in areas of personal importance to members of the public, such as health issues. The embargo arrangement encourages pack reporting of research from a few selected journals regardless of whether the research is truly important or definitive.

It also bears noting that although the editors of scholarly journals that operate under embargoes voice support for the practice, it clearly does not enjoy total support in academe. Some scholarly societies -- such as the American Geophysical Union and others -- see no need for an embargo or believe that it does not operate in the public interest. Individual scholars also criticize the embargo arrangement. Some characterize it as a type of collusion that interferes with the stated purpose of scholarly communication. In the words of one science librarian: “Science is supposed to progress through rapid communication of results among scientists, but the embargo system is a barrier to this free exchange of information. One can understand that publishers do not want to feed the public with incomplete and inaccurate information but other scientists in the academy would have liked to enjoy the same kind of privilege extended to the media.”

In the short run, the Internet has probably bolstered the embargo system, particularly because the World Wide Web and electronic mail have provided new tools for distributing embargoed articles to journalists. EurekAlert! in particular has been a resounding success story for embargo proponents, so much so that it has spawned imitators such as Nature’s p ress Web site and AlphaGalileo.

But in the long run, online communications will probably undermine embargoes on news about science and medicine. One reason is the very phenomenon noted in the previous paragraph as an argument that the Internet has initially bolstered the embargo: the ease with which the Internet can connect journal publishers with a worldwide cadre of journalists. More and more science and medical journalists, around the globe, are participating in embargoes sponsored by journals in the United States and Britain. Many of these journalists may not be as heavily invested in the embargo system and therefore are more likely to jump the gun when an important paper comes along.

Put more simply: Decades ago, when journal embargoes began, science and medical journalists constituted a handful of reporters who worked alongside one another constantly, at various scientific conferences, meetings, and events. A science or medical journalist who broke an embargo knew that he (and back then, a science or medical journalist almost always was a “he”) would face angry questions from fellow journalists the next time he encountered them. By contrast, the journalists who today participate in the embargo are scattered around the world; many are unlikely to ever have to face the journalists in the United States and Britain who would be most discomfited by an embargo violation. Or from the standpoint of the social construction of news, the widening of the pool of potential embargo participants made possible by the Internet’s global reach may seriously erode the social bonds that maintain the embargo. As the embargo comes to include more journalists around the world, the participants are likely to include individuals who have not been socialized to honor embargoes and who would be immune to social pressures from other embargo participants to conform to embargo rules.

The Internet will also weaken the embargo because it is transforming the process of scientific communication itself. Most traditional journals now offer online access to their articles, with the articles often posted long before the printed journal arrives in a scholar’s mailbox. Some journals have gone a step further, by publishing some or all of their articles online before they are published in print. The New England Journal of Medicine, for example, has posted on its Web site certain articles that, in the opinion of its editors, were in the public interest for rapid dissemination. Although the New England journal generally restricts online access to paid subscribers of the journal, anyone could read or download these “early release” articles. Science and Nature have also begun to post selected journal articles online, after they have completed peer review and editing but before they appear in print.

Increasingly, early online publication appears to be becoming the norm for at least some journal publishers. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, for example, publishes all articles online before they appear in print, as much as five weeks later. The American Chemical Society also publishes online some of the articles issued in its 27 journals as soon as they are ready for publication, even if they have not yet appeared in a printed publication. The articles are posted online after they have been peer-reviewed, copyedited, and checked by the author. Embargoes for these articles are much shorter than embargoes for printed journals.

The Internet is also changing other aspects of communication among scientists. One example is the departmental seminar, often conducted in the late afternoon, perhaps along with punch and cookies, at which a local researcher or a visiting scholar offers a brief presentation on recent research. Increasingly, departments are transmitting live video of these seminars across the Web, using streaming video, to anyone who cares to watch and listen. The National Institutes of Health, for example, Webcasts many such seminars each week. The Multi-University/Research Laboratory --  a joint effort of computer scientists at six universities or corporations -- similarly transmits live seminars in that field.

Although it is impractical for most science journalists to cover departmental seminars in person, nothing stops journalists from covering these broadcasts as news, or watching them as a way to develop leads on future research developments. There is little indication that journalists are using Webcasts as a reporting tool to date, but journalists could use the fact of such a live Webcast (and, more compellingly, the existence of a freely available online copy) as evidence that a particular research finding is in the public domain, vacating any embargo. (Interestingly, The New England Journal of Medicine -- one of the most staunch foes of online prior publication -- has ruled that it will not disqualify from publication an audio recording of a presentation at a medical conference along with “selected slides from the presentation.”)

Scientists are also using the Web to archive and distribute preprints of their papers. With the advent of the Web, scholarly societies and even individual scholars have created databases on which authors can deposit electronic copies of their papers. Few journalists use the Web sites to plumb for news.

One who does is Tom Siegfried, science editor of The Dallas Morning News. “There’s plenty of stuff to report out there before they appear in journals,” he says. Every night, he says, he checks physics preprint servers, because the latest research is usually reported there first. “In physics nowadays the journals have become increasingly irrelevant,” he contends, with their role largely limited to serving as the archival copies of important papers and for proving records for tenure.

Even aside from these new forms of online scholarly communication, the Internet weakens the embargo system by providing new routes for embargoed information to leak into the public sphere. “A lot of my reporting is Web surfing,” says Alexandra Witze, also of The Dallas Morning News. “Journals are one tool among many. I think the problem is that many journalists focus on them as the only tool.”

Internet mailing lists, newsgroups, Web sites, and blogs all provide venues for interested nonjournalists to swap information about research news. Journals publish tables of contents of upcoming issues. Scholarly societies post abstracts of papers to be presented at their scientific meetings. Support groups for individuals suffering from particular diseases and their families, for example, are likely to operate online information sources that discuss clinical trials of treatments for the disease in question. Attentive journalists monitoring these Web sites and mailing lists could well glean information that could lead to stories outside the embargo.

Such a surfeit of information will increasingly create situations in which science and medical journalists decide that online information has vacated the embargo on a specific journal article. Indeed, this was one of the justifications made by The Detroit Free Press and journalists at other media organizations who prematurely reported findings on a study of hormone-replacement therapy in 2002; the findings, they said, were already being discussed online: “Women’s health sites on the Internet were buzzing about what the study said and what women should do.”

The embargo system should be replaced with full and open disclosure of research results as soon as they are ready for public consumption, which generally would mean as soon as peer review is complete. Once a scholarly paper has been accepted by a journal, scientists and their institutions should be free to tell the world about it, and journalists should be free to report on it if they deem it newsworthy. As many have already begun to do, the journal in question could make the accepted paper available to its subscribers online, so that the subscribers could consult the full text of the paper for themselves. Journalists would be freed of the perceived tyranny of the embargo, and they would have newfound time to visit scientists in laboratories and troll for investigative stories rather than leafing through press releases and password-protected Web sites in search of what the competition is probably going to report.

This is emphatically not to suggest that science and medical journalists should break embargoes. To the contrary, journalists have both an ethical and a legal duty to abide by agreements with their sources, including embargo agreements. If a journalist obtains information under an embargo, that journalist is ethically bound to honor that embargo, just as the journalist would be ethically bound to, for example, withhold the name of a source if the journalist agreed that the source would be unidentified.

But although journalists are ethically bound to honor embargoes to which they have agreed, they are not ethically required to continue to agree to embargoes. Continuing the parallel to anonymous sources, many media organizations have established policies that govern the conditions under which they will grant anonymity to a source. But the fact that a media organization has had a policy for granting anonymity in the past does not mean that it will always grant that anonymity to all sources in the future. Similarly, the fact that science and medical journalists have used embargoed information in the past, and have respected those embargoes, does not mean that those journalists or their media organizations must continue to agree to embargoes in the future.

In short, science and medical journalists, and their media organizations, should terminate their embargo relationships with journal publishers and stop accepting embargoed information from them. Scientific societies and journal publishers should stop distributing information under embargo. Government research agencies and foundations should stop supporting the embargo, which provides a few with privileged early access to taxpayer-financed research. Universities, which cast themselves as champions of free expression, should oppose embargoes on their faculty members’ research, rather than seeking to hitch their own publicity machines to the journals’.

It is time for science and medical journalists to break out of their dependence on journals as a source of science news, and it is time for scholarly societies to stop trying to shape the flow of news in a way that suits their own political ends. The embargo should go.

Bio

Vincent Kiernan is an instructor of journalism at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. This essay is an excerpt from his book, Embargoed Science, published this month by the University of Illinois Press.

 

 

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