Science. Communication. Community.
Press embargoes, what are they good for? And can you really place an embargo on publicly posted research papers?
As a graduate student, I was inducted into the cabal of science by postdocs and senior faculty members who taught me the ropes, the practices, and the ins and outs of science. I learned the language and the behavior, and before I knew it, seven years had passed and I had the secret handshake down. I almost forgot there had been a time when I was still fumbling through the motions: I had become a Real Scientist, a Doctor of Philosophy.
In 2006, when I started graduate school, I had no idea what an embargo was, at least not of the press variety. As part of the induction into the science communicators’ cabal, I have now learned a new secret handshake, of which the embargo is a big part. A little bit older, and perhaps a bit wiser, I am now questioning the didactics that push science writers into “pack journalism” (or maybe I’m just not good at groupthink; after all, I did not end up entering academia like all good grad students should).
This past fall, while writing for Inside Science, I had the embargo experience that prompted me to write this post and mull the utility of press embargoes in the digital age. After a particularly ridiculous email exchange with two prominent researchers regarding their “embargoed” arXiv pre-print, my editor handed me a copy of “Embargoed Science” by Vincent Kiernan. In our discussion of the reasoning behind embargoes, I started to see parallels with the rise of the open access movement: scientists decided to stop being pawns and free labor for big publishers, and universities and funders decided to stop paying twice to access and disseminate research that had already been paid for. Many journals are now publishing nearly continuously online; the convention of weekly or monthly issues is dying with print, and the need for preset show-and-tell embargo times with it. Scientists who didn’t want to provide both free content and free services to publishers like Elsevier signed the Cost of Knowledge petition; aren’t science journalists who stick to embargoes similarly just blindly doing the publishers’ bidding, for fear of upsetting the system and ostracism?
The only benefit of embargoed press releases that I’ve experienced is that scientific publishers release them like clockwork, affording an element of regularity to the operation of journals and newsrooms, and a sense of urgency and newsiness to their respective staff. However, increasingly embargoes can’t even guarantee the novelty of research, so that’s one more justification out the window; why wait to report on something that’s not even a scoop? Doing away with embargoes, on the other hand, has at least two benefits that I can see. First, it would allow writers to be treated like competent, autonomous professionals who don’t need artificial training wheels to get their jobs done. Second, it would, so to speak, enhance the gene pool of science coverage, freeing journalists to find novel work in unlikely places instead of relying on the scheduled feedings provided by the luxury journals, whose output is inevitably covered by everyone and their cat.
A science writer friend pointed out to me that in no other field of journalism are the subjects – in our case, the scientists and their research – treated with such velvet gloves. A politician can’t decide to engage with journalists only when it’s convenient for them, because there are intrepid newshounds constantly going through their dirty laundry whether the press people have officially sanctioned it or not. So why then, when the researchers themselves post their proverbial laundry online on pre-print servers, publicly for all to see, am I still constrained not to report on it? The authors of the above mentioned arXiv paper were “in the process of submitting to a peer-reviewed journal” and didn’t want to jeopardize their publication with premature press mentions . The practice at Inside Science, as at many outlets, is not to run stories that can’t be fully reported, and that includes speaking with the authors, who in this case were quite adamant about staying mum. That didn’t stop a few sites from running with their paper that very week, and as I pointed out to the authors, not only did they miss out on a chance to contribute to their own narrative, this early coverage detracted from the hoped-for news buzz upon eventual publication. So much for “high impact.”
One of the most successful indoctrinations on the path to becoming a Real Scientist, it seems, is the internalization of the Ingelfinger Rule. Scientists still freak out about it, as if the ultimate goal isn’t actually doing good science and sharing it with the scientific community, but fanatical adherence to rules and some fleeting high from a well-timed media blitz. And yet, increasing numbers of (non-physical) scientists are posting their work on pre-print servers like arXiv or bioRxiv, claiming that they are soliciting peer feedback  to improve the work prior to “real” publication. Guess what? Publication in pixels and bits is no less real than ink on paper. Journalists, and even the non-scientist hoi polloi, can see all of it. So scientists, if I’m interested in your publicly posted research now, you’re doing both of us a favor by talking. If not – well, there are no threats here, thinly veiled or otherwise. All I have is a keyboard, and I’m not afraid to use it.
My exhortation to my fellow science communicators, especially us newbies, is this: What would happen if we all took a week off of covering Science, Nature, PNAS, and JAMA to, say, only write about what’s coming out in the (embargo-free) journal eLife ? As science publishing’s digital revolution rolls on, I’m not sure any of us – journalists or scientists – can afford to have our embargo cake and eat it too for very much longer.
More on embargoes! If you must use embargoes: 10 rules for getting it right by Ivan Oransky (Rule 2: Don’t embargo material that’s freely available online)
 A tangential motivation for journalists to cover research in newer or lesser-known journals, beyond getting cool exclusives, may be solidarity with junior faculty who are trying to demonstrate to tenure committees that the traditional restrictive norms of “impact” may need a re-think, as outlined in Randy Schekman’s boycott of luxury journals.