Embargoes and Retractions: an Interview with Ivan Oransky, Part Two

25 July 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo credit: nh313066/stock.xchng

In the second part of my interview with Ivan Oransky, we talk about what led to his founding of Embargo Watch and co-founding of Retraction Watch – as well as the Ingelfinger Rule, what he looks for in a medical reporter and what you can learn from grad students. The first part of the interview can be found here.

CB: You started at Reuters Health in 2009, and I’m guessing that being executive editor took up an enormous amount of time. But in 2010 you launched not one, but two blogs: Embargo Watch that spring and Retraction Watch, which you run with Adam Marcus, that summer. Maintaining two blogs means a lot of additional work.

I’ll start with Embargo Watch. What made you decide to launch a blog focused entirely on issues related to embargoed research news? And while we’re at it, can you explain the Ingelfinger Rule to any readers who aren’t familiar with it?

Oransky: I’ve been obsessed with embargoes for more years than I should admit. When I was in college, Science – before the AAAS launched EurekAlert -- would fax me, on thermal paper, the following week’s table of contents. I would then circle the studies I was interested in on the sheets of curling paper, and fax them back, at which point I’d get those studies on more glossy curly paper.

It was years later, however, working at The Scientist and starting to think more about the science journalism ecosystem, that I became familiar with the work of Vincent Kiernan, on whose shoulders Embargo Watch stands. I realized how much of a carefully orchestrated operation science “news” had become, and it bothered me. I first wrote about an embargo break by the New York Times in 2007, in a post Slate’s Jack Shafer picked up.

I was finally moved to start Embargo Watch during 2010’s ScienceOnline. Here was this wonderfully supportive – and that also means constructively critical – group of science bloggers, off writing about their own obsessions, finding audiences, and making people sit up and pay attention. I learned how to blog effectively from that group, and they gave me a boost when I launched Embargo Watch. They continue to give me great stories, feedback, and support.

The Ingelfinger Rule, which I’m now convinced is the real problem with the embargo system, was a policy then-New England Journal of Medicine editor-in-chief Franz Ingelfinger came up with in 1969. He didn’t call it that at the time, and it has evolved since, but the basic idea was that some researchers were going straight to the media with their “breakthroughs,” bypassing peer review and causing a lot of confusion and false hope. So he decreed that NEJM wouldn’t consider any papers whose results had already been publicized, whether in the mass media or other journals.

It’s important to remember that history because the fact is that Ingelfinger had a legitimate concern, and came up with a reasonable way to address it. The problem in the time since then is that the Ingelfinger Rule has become a gag order. Scientists are deathly afraid of talking to reporters, because it might jeopardize their publication in a prestigious journal. That fear is actually out of proportion to policies at major journals. But until it changes, it makes it very difficult for journalists to tell the real stories of science – which focusing on the study of the week, as the Ingelfinger Rule, aided and abetted by embargoes, encourages. I’d like to see more of an effort to take science journalism upstream, as Alice Bell has put it. The Ingelfinger Rule and embargoes make journals much too powerful, giving them a stranglehold over the flow of scientific information, particularly in a world where the news cycle is measured in milliseconds and the beast must always be fed.

CB: A lot of the posts on Embargo Watch are, frankly, almost comical. (For example, when the Royal Society broke its own embargo.) Do you think issues surrounding embargoes are becoming more or less important?

Oransky: I’m glad to hear you think a lot of the stories I tell on Embargo Watch are amusing. Embargoes are agreements between two parties, and humans make mistakes pretty often. On the one hand, not having to rely on thermal fax paper means that it’s theoretically possible to embargo anything and everything, an approach some organizations try to take. On the other, that same growth of electronic publishing means that embargoes can be more easily broken, whether intentionally or not. So my sense is that a combination of a changing publishing world and a growing number of breaks are forcing many institutions to reconsider their cherished embargoes. As you and I have discussed, the relatively new journal eLife decided not to use embargoes, or the Ingelfinger, at all.

CB: What led you to launch Retraction Watch?

Ivan Oransky (Photo: Jill Lotenberg, for Everyday Health, Inc.)

Oransky: Adam Marcus, my co-founder, and I had long obsessed about retractions, just as I had long obsessed about embargoes. Adam had broken big stories involving retractions, such as that of Scott Reuben, and I had trained my staff at The Scientist to always poke into retraction notices to find the often-fascinating stories behind them. Adam and I would send emails about particular cases to one another, or call each other to have conversations that began with some version of “You’ll never believe this one.”

It occurred to me during one of those conversations that retractions would be a great source of regular material for a blog. I’d learned the ropes of blogging at Embargo Watch, figuring out how to make inside-baseball stories into blog posts and engage an audience. Adam was enthusiastic, so we launched on August 3, 2010. In that first post, we explain that it was a desire to see more transparency that prompted us to start blogging. Retraction notices are often opaque, and almost never publicized, which we think are big problems.

Our timing was fortunate: the Boston Globe broke the Marc Hauser case the same week we launched, which focused the world’s attention on scientific fraud. And it turned out retraction rates had grown ten-fold over the past decade. We were off to the races, and haven’t looked back since.

CB: I admire the work you and Marcus do on Retraction Watch, so I hope this comes across the right way – but, since you are now the global editorial director of MedPage Today (and were executive editor of Reuters Health) aren’t you in a position to highlight these retractions in more high-profile news outlets? How do you determine what’s a story for your “day job,” versus what’s a story for Retraction Watch?

Oransky: This is something Adam and I think about all the time. And our day jobs always come first. When there’s a big retraction in anesthesiology – and boy, has the field had a lot of retractions – Adam publishes the news on Anesthesiology News before we post it on the blog. Similarly, whenever we’d cover something that was likely to be a study Reuters Health would have covered, I’d check it against our archive, and refile the story with a note on top, if we’d written about it. Or I’d make the retractions themselves a story for the wire. Many of the studies we cover on Retraction Watch, however, are either not clinical, or they’re in obscure journals. So the level of interest at our news organizations isn’t very high.

CB: Since starting Retraction Watch, have you seen any increase in coverage of retractions by other media outlets?

Oransky: There has been a great deal of interest in retractions and scientific misconduct in the past few years. Whether it has increased since we began the blog, I can’t really say for sure, but I suspect the answer is yes. We’ve certainly been interviewed countless times by major media outlets, from NPR to the New York Times and the Seoul Daily. We’re humbled for any part we’ve played in raising awareness of these issues, which after all is one of the main reasons we started the blog. The coverage has led to critical conversations not just about deterring fraud, but about reproducibility in science and post-publication peer review, among other issues, that I think are already starting to bear fruit. And journals have begun citing us, in editorials and even retraction notices, which is a bit meta – we sometimes laugh or pinch ourselves – but is also enormously gratifying.

CB: You’re an adjunct associate professor in NYU’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP), an adjunct instructor at UMass Amherst’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences – and had previously been an adjunct assistant professor of journalism at the City University of New York. How does your work with SHERP differ from your work at UMass? And what draws you to working with students?

Oransky: SHERP is designed to train the next generation of science journalists. Our students tend to have strong science backgrounds, so the goal of the program is to teach them the skills they’ll need to be specialized reporters, editors, and producers. At UMass, I teach a class in health communication theory to graduate students who are planning careers in public health. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them end up publishing a fair amount in the mass media, but the real objective for them is to learn how to communicate risk, write pieces such as op-eds, and work effectively with journalists.

I fell into teaching at SHERP in 2002. I had guest-lectured for the class I now teach, which at that point was being taught by someone with a very similar resume to mine. He moved at the end of that year, and asked if I wanted to pick up the class. It was somewhat terrifying to come up with a syllabus and stand in front of a class of smart, talented, and highly motivated students that first night, but I’ve loved it ever since. Teaching keeps me on my toes, challenging me in different ways than working in a newsroom. Students aren’t encumbered by historical “but that’s how we do it” baggage, which really forces me to think about “hey, why do we do it that way again?” It’s a way to give back and nurture the next generation, the one I’ll probably have to beg for a job at some point. There’s really no better reward than reading one of your former students’ byline over a great piece of journalism – which I had the pleasure of doing just this week, when I saw this story, exposing a Miami cop who moonlights as a “brain-programming ‘neuroscientist.’” That story started as a pitch in my class.

CB: Has your work in higher ed taught you anything that you’ve been able to apply to your work as a journalist?

Oransky: Here’s something seemingly small that SHERP director Dan Fagin showed me a number of years ago: When you leave feedback in ALL CAPS, which we all used to do before track changes were invented, you look as if you’re shouting and angry. Students, staffers, and freelancers will respond the same way, which I can understand. They’ll feel beaten down all the time. It was remarkable how much better feedback was received once I stopped using all caps, even when I was saying the same things I always had.

On a bigger scale, I learn from my students every year, whether it’s watching them experiment to create great journalism on Scienceline, where I’m faculty advisor, or seeing what they come up with now that I’ve gone platform-agnostic in my class assignments. All of that inspires my work in my “day job.”

CB: On behalf of anyone aspiring to cover the medicine/health beat as a reporter, what are the characteristics you look for in a good reporter?

Oransky: First and foremost, I look for curiosity and skepticism, which I suppose adds up to critical thinking. Don’t be afraid of asking what seem like dumb questions. There aren’t any in journalism. Better to fumble through an interview but end up getting things right in your final piece than let your readers or viewers down.

Today, when people approach me wanting to switch from medicine or science to journalism, or add writing to their portfolios, I tell them to start blogging. Throw spaghetti at the wall, and use social media to get feedback on what sticks. (Now you see why I stick to baseball metaphors when I’m teaching.) Send me posts, show me how you write and think. I don’t hire everyone who does that, but I end up working with a high percentage of those who keep at it.

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