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Why science news embargoes are bad for the public

Embargoes allow journals, universities, nonprofits, and corporations to decide what’s important — and when. That should be up to journalists.

A lot of the power of embargoes would go away if journalists stopped believing they had to publish a story or post a blog the minute a new study came out.
Annette Elizabeth Allen

This Thursday, dozens of news outlets will publish stories on the same new study in the journal Science. On Friday, many of those same news outlets will all report on a study in the medical journal the Lancet. These newspapers and magazines will largely talk to the same sources, and many of their stories will be nearly identical.

The reason for this synchrony is embargoes — agreements between reporters and sources that the former can have access to information from the latter, but not publish anything until a time the source has determined in advance. Nearly all of the major scientific journals use them and send the studies out to journalists five or so days before they lift.

Embargoes have become the focus of attention in recent months because one of the main clearinghouses for them, EurekAlert, was hacked — and because of some fairly shocking revelations about how the US Food and Drug Administration has used them to manipulate journalists.

As part of a scheme called a “close-hold embargo,” federal agencies offer a small group of reporters early access to information, but only if they agree not to try to obtain outside comment before the embargo lifts. That effectively turns journalists who want to publish the minute the embargo lifts into stenographers, printing whatever the agency wants (not much different from relying solely on a press release).

But it’s clear that a lot of the power of embargoes would go away if journalists stopped believing they had to publish a story or post a blog the minute a new study came out. Sure, I get the value of a news peg. I used to run a wire service, Reuters Health, that covers health. But it warps the public’s understanding of how science works.

One new study can’t overturn the consensus in the field. And in many cases, the newest study is just the one most likely to be disproven in the future. Readers can often learn more from the history of a scientific question than they can from just the latest stab at answering that question.

But because reporters feel the need to make every finding sound important, embargoes are responsible in some large part, for example, for the weekly seesaw of “coffee is good for you, coffee is bad for you” news coverage with which we’ve all become too familiar.

In reality, embargoes allow journals, universities, nonprofits, and corporations to decide what’s important — and when. That should be up to journalists and, frankly, anyone who writes about science. Reporters, even with the best intentions, end up on the study-of-the-week treadmill, and they’re less creative because of the limitations of something called the Ingelfinger Rule, which scares researchers out of talking to them (more on that in a moment). Science, rather than appearing like a human enterprise, full of fits and starts in the never-ending search for knowledge, is expected to prove claims once a week, or even more frequently. And I think that’s bad for readers and viewers.

Embargoes are not that old

Embargoes haven’t been with us forever. They got their start in the 1920s, when the Science Service news agency was born. As Vincent Kiernan details in Embargoed Science, a great book on this subject, the intention of embargoes was to improve “wider appreciation of science ... a social good in itself [that would] promote wider support for science in U.S. society.” The founding editor of Science Service, Edwin Slosson, “made clear from the very beginning that Science Service planned to arrange for extensive embargoed access to scientific reports. In his discussions with scientists, Slosson repeatedly linked this access to the goal of wider appreciation of science, which he argued both was a social good in itself and would promote wider support for science in U.S. society.”

At one point, Slosson wrote, “The only way to prevent the misinterpretation of the announcements of a scientific discovery is to have prepared in advance for simultaneous release a popularly written explanation of its meaning and significance.” Slosson had grown alarmed at depictions of the scientist as “an enemy of society inventing infernal machines, or as a curious, half-crazy creature talking a jargon of his own and absorbed in pursuit of futilities.”

Science Service made use of embargoes for its coverage of the 1922 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting, and the idea quickly took hold, adopted in subsequent years by meetings of the American Cancer Society and American Medical Association (AMA). So it’s no surprise that JAMA, the AMA’s journal, began using them too, at some point in the 1920s or 1930s. Many other journals followed suit.

But something happened in the 1960s that changed the way embargoes are used — and many journalists’ opinion of them. The change didn’t have anything to do with embargoes per se; it came out of concerns from Franz Ingelfinger, the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), that a lot of researchers were seeking publicity of their work in the media before it was peer-reviewed and published — selling a cancer cure by splashing it on the front page of a big newspaper, for instance. Ingelfinger wrote a few editorials that gave birth to what became known as the Ingelfinger Rule: If a study has been reported on in the press, or published elsewhere, NEJM wouldn’t accept it for publication.

That rule — which I believe was well-intentioned — has had a chilling effect on science reporting. It means that researchers are often scared to talk to journalists, even if it’s to answer a few questions after a meeting presentation, because they fear they won’t be able to publish in a top journal — something they need to do to advance their careers.

And in turn, that means that if reporters want to write about findings, they’ll have to wait until a journal sends them an embargoed release — at which point every other reporter will have that information too.

Embargoes were certainly ubiquitous by the early 1990s, when I first encountered them as the science and health editor of my college newspaper. I’d get a fax — yes, a curling paper fax — once a week from Science magazine, circle the items of interest, fax it back to Science, and receive the embargoed papers (also, of course, by fax).

The EurekAlert website was born in 1996. The ability to gather embargoed press releases from journals, universities, and others was “like a phase change,” longtime science journalist Charles Petit told Wired earlier this year.

Indeed it was. Reporters from around the world could find what they needed in one place, without even having to make a phone call. Today, as Wired noted, EurekAlert has “12,000 registered reporters from 90 different countries … receives around 200 submissions a day, from 10,000 [public information officers] representing 6,000 different institutions all around the world.” There are some major journals that still maintain their own press lists — Nature and its family of publications is one, NEJM is another — but it’s still a fire hose of embargoed content.

That fire hose is too much to keep up with, and it reinforces the idea that reporters should prioritize its content above other material. That once again allows journals to decide what’s news, and when. It also plays on the idea that relying on embargoed material means it’s been peer-reviewed — and science reporters can trust it. This is what the major journals would like reporters to believe — but it is kind of laughable. Even science journal editors admit peer review is highly porous, and a number of fields are realizing a lot of what they publish doesn’t hold up. A good science reporter can organize a more thorough debunking than journals can, in at least some cases. None of this means we should do away with peer review. It just means we shouldn’t treat it as the final arbiter of truth, which is how journals justify the Ingelfinger Rule.

Given how much reporters rely on EurekAlert, so it was a bit of a shock to the science journalism system when, on September 13, AAAS announced it was taking the site offline. It had been hacked, for reasons that are still a bit unclear. Before the site eventually went back online on October 2, the hack led to some soul searching and discussions for some of us, but when the switch flipped on, you could hear the relief from many of the world’s science reporters.

The really dark side of embargoes

It’s not just journals that make use of embargoes. Federal agencies do too. But in recent years, at least two have ratcheted up the way they use them to control the flow of information.

Back in January 2011, the Food and Drug Administration made an embargoed announcement about changes to its medical device approval process. Nothing unusual about that. What was unusual was that the agency told reporters they couldn’t share the information with anyone — as they’d normally do for outside comment and perspective — before the embargo lifted.

That angered a lot of people, including myself, Larry Husten of CardioBrief, and the Association of Health Care Journalists, on whose board I sat (and still sit). It was a perversion of the agreement undergirding embargoes, we argued, making a mockery of the idea that they were good for journalism and the public, instead creating stenographers. The FDA backed down.

This wasn’t the last we’d hear of what have become known as “close-hold” embargoes. Three years later, the US Chemical Safety Board tried the same thing with a report on a refinery explosion. It, too, backed down following an outcry.

But according to emails obtained by my New York University Journalism Institute colleague Charles Seife, the FDA had no real intention of changing its policy. It demanded another close-hold embargo in 2014, which unfortunately for the FDA caught the attention of then–New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan. And to make things worse, it only made the offer to certain news organizations. This was manipulation, pure and simple, by a government agency, as Seife reported last month at Scientific American — using a twisted form of the embargo process.

In the ensuing discussions among journalists, some have argued that close-hold embargoes like the ones the FDA uses are utterly different from run-of-the-mill embargoes. Strictly speaking, this is perhaps true. But it’s hard to argue against the fact that close-hold embargoes are only possible because so many reporters are willing to agree to embargoes in the first place. These are government agencies, and when it comes to trying to control the press, give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.

Whatever benefits embargoes have, they’re not worth the costs

Embargo proponents — reporters and press officers alike — rely on several arguments to defend the practice.

Embargoes help reporters do a better job on complicated stories, they note. And for some reporters, this is actually true. You’re not worried about scoops, and you have several days to dig into a study, call experts, and write. But plenty of reporters don’t use that time. We get lots of bad coverage — particularly from still-influential morning television shows — even with embargoes. So having extra time often doesn’t make a difference, and those reporters who’ve used the extra time to do a better job could have spent it doing more enterprising work.

Others say that embargoes give reporters some semblance of control over their lives. With the exception of embargo breaks, after which everyone scrambles to get their own stories out, this is certainly true. But I’d argue the costs of that control — which is really just ceded to journals — are much too high. This argument feels a bit like an emergency room doctor saying he or she only wants to see patients with clearly defined conditions, maybe even with all of their test results waiting in their charts. Sure, he or she would have control over a chaotic existence, but I doubt that’s why anyone goes into emergency medicine, nor why such doctors are valuable. Same thing for journalists.

In short, whatever benefits embargoes may have, they’re just not worth it. So, reporters, try to imagine a world without embargoes. It will be more chaotic, sure, but it will also mean you can do stories no one else has found yet. You’ll also actually reflect the ups, downs, and sideways of science, not just the highlights some journal wants you to focus on. And journals, enough of the Ingelfinger Rule and trying to control the flow of scientific information for your benefit. Remember that whole unfettered scholarly pursuit of truth that you love to champion? Walk the talk.

To coin a phrase: The revolution will not be embargoed.

Ivan Oransky, MD, who blogs at Embargo Watch, is a distinguished writer in residence at New York University's Arthur Carter Journalism Institute.

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