The Pros and Cons of Embargoes
Embargoes are a fact of life for many people in the science communication field. But a lot of people don’t know what they are, why some institutions require them and/or why some people don’t like them.
In a scicomm context, an embargo is when a journal, researcher or public information officer (PIO) gives reporters a copy of a journal article before the article is published – but bars those reporters from releasing any stories about the journal article until it has been published.
The reporters are given advance notice (and the preview copy) so that they have time to read the paper, conduct interviews and generally do their homework before the paper comes out. In theory, this means that when the journal article does become publicly available, news outlets will simultaneously unveil well-reported news stories on the article’s findings.
For example, here’s the language the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences uses to explain the purpose of its embargo policy: “This policy is designed to provide news reporters an opportunity to write accurate news stories while ensuring that publicity does not appear prematurely. Through consistent implementation of our embargo policy, we work to maintain a fair and level playing field that gives no one reporter or organization an advantage over others.”
Embargoes are particularly useful for news outlets such as newspapers and magazines. For example, if a magazine was scheduled to come out on Sept. 21, its editors would need to send the final version to the printers by, say, Sept. 17 (if not earlier) – so that there would be time to print and ship the issue. If an exciting new study was coming out on Sept. 20, the magazine would be out of luck – unless the reporters and editors had gotten an embargoed copy. Then they could write about it and send it to the printers – safe in the knowledge that the study would be public knowledge by the time the magazine hit streets on Sept. 21.
Printing and shipping are no longer issues for many news organizations – they can make their stories available online at any time. But this only highlights another argument in favor of embargoes: the 24/7 news cycle.
With the arrival of around-the-clock news channels and websites, the premium placed on being the first to report a story has grown. In many instances, it seems that news outlets are far more concerned with being first than with being best – or even of doing a decent job of reporting out a story. An embargo addresses this problem by giving reporters the chance to do a thorough job of reporting the story ahead of time, instead of scrambling to pull together a first-day story. There is real value there.
(An Aside On Something That Annoys Me)
This is more of an annoyance than a substantive problem with the embargo process, and it arises from poor execution of an embargo by journals or PIOs. Specifically, it occurs when a journal or PIO disseminates embargoed material under the assumption that a reporter is automatically obligated to follow the terms of the embargo. For example, let’s say that a PIO sends a reporter an unsolicited email containing a pre-publication copy of a journal article and simply says “this is embargoed until DATE XX.” The reporter didn’t ask for the paper, and certainly hadn’t agreed to the terms of the embargo prior to receiving the paper. In my opinion, the reporter would be well within his or her rights by writing about the paper and ignoring the embargo. The lesson here is: if you are a PIO that is pitching a story about an embargoed paper, wait until the reporter has agreed to the terms of the embargo before sending them the paper.
Now, having gotten that off my chest, let's talk about three problems that are more substantial.
First: Reporters who have agreed to respect the terms of an embargo will still want to get third-party input from researchers who have relevant expertise but who were not involved in whatever study a reporter is covering. In order to offer meaningful feedback, a researcher may (reasonably) ask for a copy of the paper. How can they comment on something they haven’t read?
Here’s where human nature comes into play. Maybe the researcher is so excited, angry, enthusiastic, or nonplussed by a paper that they just have to share it with someone. Thus the paper begins trickling out before the paper is available, and the embargo may become meaningless. There are even instances where researchers in a given field are getting pre-publication access to papers (somehow) and then being shopped to reporters as experts. This can be problematic, since the reporters they’re being shopped to haven’t necessarily agreed to the terms of an embargo. So what is stopping those reporters from talking to the “expert” and writing about the embargoed study before the paper is out? Nothing.
Second: Embargoes can give an unfair advantage to anyone who is willing to break the rules. Let’s say an important study is coming out, and ten reporters agree to the terms of the embargo. If one of those reporters decides to break the rules, and publish a story ahead of time, he or she would be the first to get that big story out there. And the punishments for breaking embargoes are often inconsistent.
A 2012 post on the Embargo Watch blog praises one institution for its transparent policy on dealing with reporters who break embargoes. But the post also highlights the widespread lack of clarity and consistency when it comes to dealing with those who break embargoes. Sometimes there’s no punishment at all. Sometimes it’s a three-month ban from receiving embargoed materials from a particular institution. Sometimes it’s longer. But it seems to me that few (if any) are sufficient to stop an ambitious reporter from breaking an embargo. I don’t want to seem Pollyannaish, but I hate to see bad behavior rewarded.
I asked Ivan Oransky, the creator of Embargo Watch (and executive editor at Reuters Health), whether he thinks the existing sanctions are an effective deterrent. His response: “It’s hard to say whether punitive sanctions are effective at preventing embargo breaks. Sanctions are a pain, but a good reporter will be able to find the information he or she needs another way. Sometimes they’ll just decide not to try to get back on the lists.”
Third: Sometimes a good reporter will be punished simply for doing his or her job.
Here’s how that might work: a reporter gets a hot lead from a source about an upcoming paper and starts doing some reporting. They get confirmation from multiple sources and pull together a good story. They run the story, without ever having agreed to an embargo. But whoever is publishing the paper gets upset that the story ran before the embargo was lifted and sanctions the reporter – even though the reporter never agreed to an embargo, and may not even have seen the paper. Their story could have been based on good reporting and input from multiple sources.
In short, the embargo paradigm creates lots of opportunities for miscommunication and hard feelings. It has the potential to reward poor ethics and punish good reporters. Those things make me uncomfortable.
I can appreciate the value of embargoes, but am also aware that they can be problematic.
We’re beginning to see some potential for significant changes in how journals handle forthcoming publications, such as eLife’s decision to avoid embargoes altogether. I’ll be very interested to see how the “no embargo” approach works. If it doesn’t affect the quality of stories on research published in eLife, maybe the idea will spread.
The floor is now open for debate. Thoughts?