Embargoes as Self-Defense, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Live with Embargoes

17 June 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Image from "Dr. Strangelove," Columbia Pictures Corporation

For a long time, I avoided promoting embargoed research findings as much as possible. Now I don’t. Now I use embargoes. I still don’t like them, mind you, but I learned that I have to use them – if only in self-defense.

First off, a definition. 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.

I’ve written about the pros and cons of embargoes before, so I won’t rehash the issue. I’ll simply note that, in the past, I weighed the pros and cons and found the cons to be more compelling. (What can I say? I tilt at windmills.)

So, why did I change my mind? Because I got burned.

Embargoes are, generally, put in place by journals. The journal’s publishing company will set a date and time when a research article is scheduled to be public, and share that information with the article’s authors.

Historically, I’ve used this information to write up an overview of the work (a news release or blog post), and to assemble photos, video or other material that will accompany that overview. I would then roll out the total package when the embargo lifts. That worked pretty well.

But at some point over the past year (I’m being deliberately vague), I was contacted by Journal X about a forthcoming paper. They gave me the usual embargo information, and I responded the usual way. I pulled together a good release, which explained the research in language that was accessible to a non-expert audience and highlighted what was interesting and important about the work. There were good quotes. I had some good photos to go with the release, too. And you should never underestimate the value of good graphics. I thought I was good to go, and that I could wait until the embargo lifted.

I was wrong. Journal X decided to issue its own (embargoed) release. It was not particularly well-written, and it had zero compelling images. It got very little attention from reporters, but it did get just enough attention to make it harder for me to pitch my own material when the embargo was lifted. Reporters would look at my pitch and say “Oh, someone already sent me something about this.” It was frustrating, but that’s what I would have done too, if I were in their position.

So, now I pitch embargoed material. Not because I’ve had a change of heart about the value of embargoed material, but because I’m scared that journals will issue their own embargoed releases – and probably won’t do as good a job as I’d do.

Some will argue that it was about time I got my head out of…um…the sand, and embraced embargoes whether I liked them or not. Deal with the world as it is, rather than as I’d like it to be. Those people are probably right. After all, lots of reporters love getting embargoed material. And helping reporters is, more or less, what I do for a living.

But if you’ve ever been subjected to one of my rants about embargoes and subsequently gotten a pitch from me on an embargoed study, now you know why.


2 Responses to “Embargoes as Self-Defense, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Live with Embargoes”

  1. Mike Spear Reply | Permalink

    You cited one example of an embargo but I live with a strange definition when it comes to research funding. We partner with a number of organizations to launch calls for proposals for some relatively lucrative funding. As all the partners jockey to make sure they get their name displayed high up and construct just the right quote to keep stakeholders happy we end up in a 1984 type scenario.
    It is considered 'embargoed' and not to have happened until the media release goes out even though the science community is well aware of it, EOIs may have gone out already, and in one bizarre case the funding was awarded and the researchers set to do their Q1 report while the information was still considered embargoed by some of funders.
    I appreciate how you've come to terms with some instances, but my experience with many embargoes is that it is an internal construction that has little to do with the media or the public and more to do with politics of one kind or another.

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