Embargoes in Science Reporting

Until recently, I was not aware that almost all scientific journals have embargo policies on their articles. Basically this means the journal organization and the journalist can agree to a specified time frame, during which the journalist is allowed information that is not yet public, and cannot publish any reports on the article until a specified time. Usually this time coincides with the day the article is published through the journal. This is supposed to give the journalist time to digest jargon-heavy information and present it well to the average reader, but some say it’s a profit scheme by scientific journals. Read here about JAMA’s policy on embargoes (you’ll have to use MGetIt, however). Do you think these help or hurt journalists? Would science be better with or without them?

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2 Responses to “Embargoes in Science Reporting”

  1. As a four-year research assistant, I know reviewed science journals well. Until now, perhaps because I am a part of the system, I had subconsciously understood embargoes existed but lacked awareness. That said, it could have been something else too: scientists seemed, to me, to want them.

    First, the embargo may be caused more by unfortunate competitiveness and privacy surrounding science: investigators don’t want their information leaked and stolen before it’s official. Second, had the embargoes not existed, I’m not sure I would trust reports any longer—whether peer reviewed or not. It would be harder, for example, for me to depend on a PNAS article that I had read on BuzzFeed first. The whole point is that PNAS is authoritative and trustworthy and other reports can work off of that.

    It is unfortunate that not only are journalists prevented from sharing information given to them a week before the journal is published, but also that if scientists do want to share their findings they essentially can’t publically share anything with other news media and the public. But, it seems like that’s a product of the system that also unfortunately wants privacy right now. Sorry, BuzzFeed.
    See: http://dennismeredith.com/understand-embargoes-pro-and-con_367.html and http://www.sciencemag.org/content/282/5390/860.full

  2. I understand your hesitation to accept the presence of embargoes and it definitely is a difficult concept to get over. For one, journalism is most importantly a conversation and the withholding of information creates a real barrier to the continuation of this dialogue.

    The upside being that this practice creates trust between the reader and the author that is not possible on less formal information fora, especially popular news media. Unfortunately the downside is that it greatly decreases the readership of the article. Assuming the information is valid and well-performed, this is a huge loss for those people who are not privileged enough to go to elite institutions like the University of Michigan or those who do not have the resources to purchase subscriptions to these very expensive publications. There are also many who plainly do not have the patience for these pieces of journalism.

    Frequently enough it feels as though the entire industry is not only “a profit scheme” as you said, but an elitist institution of sorts that doesn’t much care for the give and take of journalism or the dialogue of the craft.

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