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Understand Embargoes Pro and Con

Many journals impose embargoes on their papers—requiring media to hold stories on a research paper until a specific date and time. Since these embargoes affect your collaboration with PIOs and media coverage of your work, understanding them is important.

The embargo process has sparked a long-simmering controversy, as described in a 1998 Science article, "Embargoes: Good, Bad, or 'Necessary Evil'?" by Eliot Marshall, which describes the typical scenario of how journals manage their embargoes:

Every Wednesday or Thursday, more than 1400 reporters around the world get a sneak preview of the research articles that will appear in Nature a week later. The journal sends out faxes and e-mails highlighting the most newsworthy stories, and reporters can order the full text of any article. Two days later, more than 1200 journalists get similar advance notice of articles to be published in Science the following week. FedEx or priority mail brings early copies of medical journals like the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Reporters' e-mail inboxes and fax machines, meanwhile, fill up with announcements from other journals, universities, and institutes promoting new scientific findings. Most of this information carries a prominent warning: EMBARGOED. Public use of the information is forbidden until a specified date and hour to coincide with a journal's publication date.

What is most remarkable about this vast private traffic in science news is that it almost never leaks prematurely to the public. Hundreds of news-hungry reporters sit on the information, as they are bidden by journal publishers, until the designated release time. Welcome to the embargo system—a gentlemen's agreement between science journals and reporters designed to manage the flow of new scientific results to the public.

Arguing in favor of this embargo system are journal editors and PIOs from research institutions and journals. They contend that embargoes give reporters time to decipher the article, interview authors and independent commentators, and prepare an accurate story. For articles on clinical advances, editors believe that embargoes give physicians a chance to read the scientific paper on an advance before patients read media stories, so they can better respond to questions.

More Machiavellian, of course, is that embargoes create some urgency and competition, which works to the advantage of journals and PIOs to spur journalists to do stories on their papers. Journalists may also use embargoes to their benefit with their editors. They may employ a looming embargo as a small stick with which to prod their editors into running a story on the "breaking" news from a scientific paper.

Critics, however, contend that embargoes skew research coverage toward articles that have an artificial news peg. In his 2006 book Embargoed Science, Vincent Kiernan concludes that "embargoed science appears to have a clear edge over unembargoed science, in getting into the paper and onto the air, regardless of the relative importance of the two." What's more, argues Kiernan, embargoes also warp the public's view of the nature of science:

The embargo encourages a type of science journalism that depicts research as little more than a series of isolated discoveries, with little connection to previous research and divorced from a systematic mode of investigation. The embargo, by promoting an unending stream of coverage of the "latest" research findings, diverts journalists from covering the process of science, with all its controversies and murkiness.

(See also the book excerpt "The Embargo Should Go," by Kiernan.)

Embargoes are also frankly commercial ploys by journals to promote their interests, argued critics such as Harvey Leifert, former communications director for the American Geophysical Union:

"Embargoes are manipulative; they are artificial, and if you have information you should be disseminating it and not withholding it, especially not for marketing or commercial purposes," he wrote in an article in the October 2002 Physics Today, "Who Broke the Embargo? (It's the Wrong Question!)." He also decries the gag rule that some journals impose on scientists. By this rule, they may not discuss their research with journalists before publication, even when they are presenting that same research publicly at scientific meetings:

"Scientists seem to find this normal, that a journal can tell them when they can talk about their own research, with whom and when," says Leifert. "It's mind-boggling that scientists would accept it."

The embargo process has become more complicated with the advent of rapid online publication. Although such quick publication complicates the issue of embargoes—for example, requiring more urgent production of news releases—the reality is that embargoes will be around for the foreseeable future.

Thus, your responsibility remains to understand and observe the embargo policy for the journals in which you publish. Do not let a misreading of the policy prevent you from appropriately talking to journalists. For example, says AAAS public programs director Ginger Pinholster, "We try to make it very clear that the embargo does not prohibit researchers from talking to reporters beginning the Monday prior to their publication date. Sometimes scientists, and particularly first-time authors, are so concerned with adhering to the embargo guidelines that they will rebuff reporters who call them during that time." Also, says Pinholster,

We urge researchers to share the draft manuscript with their PIO, so that they can work together to communicate their research most effectively. And it is understood by Science's editors that researchers will share manuscripts with a very small number of colleagues for initial pre-review prior to the Science peer review. The paper should not be distributed any further, certainly not to anyone on the Hill. And, we ask PIOs to refer reporters to Science to get the official final version of the paper. This gives the reporter the official version of the paper and protects the PIO and Science from arguments by reporters that the embargo was broken because the paper was provided by a third-party source not under the auspices of Science and AAAS.

Make Sure Internal Media Observe the Embargo

You and your PIO should also make sure that all the internal media understand the requirements of an embargo. For example, Machalek recalls a cautionary case in which the NIGMS was coordinating an embargoed release with a grantee institution. "A few days before the embargo date, their university magazine came out with a feature on the researcher which covered the whole story, essentially breaking the embargo," she says. "Obviously, the publication office that did the magazine was different than the news release branch, and they weren't talking to each other."

Avoid Arbitrary Embargoes

There are instances where release embargoes are not appropriate. For example, do not impose an arbitrary embargo on a news release that is not pegged to some news event, such as a published paper or report or scientific talk. And it is not appropriate to impose an embargo on a feature release.

And certainly do not impose an embargo on a public document such as an announcement of a news conference. National Public Radio science correspondent Joe Palca cites such an incident of what he deemed an inappropriate embargo. A PIO for a Harvard University research institute had announced a news conference in which researchers would reveal that they were proceeding with cloning human embryos using stem cells. Since Palca and his colleagues had already reported on the planned experiments, he broadcast a story saying that the institute was expected to announce at the news conference that they were proceeding with the experiments. The PIO accused Palca of breaking an embargo on the announcement that the news conference was to take place. "The PIO was telling me I couldn't talk about something that I already knew—the fact of the news conference," says Palca.

Do Post-Embargo Releases

Even if you do not have a news release ready to go before an embargothus missing the news pegyou should still strongly consider doing a release. For one thing, important media do not necessarily time their stories to an embargo. For example, the New York Times routinely publishes stories on findings long after the relevant paper's embargo is passed. And many major online news sites, such as MSNBC, readily publish stories on releases even when issued after the journal embargo.

Also, points out Machalek, many media-worthy research stories are not fodder not daily newspapers but rather for weekly or monthly specialty magazines: "I have no idea why many PIOs focus so intensely on the daily newspaper, especially for a place like NIGMS, which is less likely to be in the New York Times than Chemical & Engineering News. There are also quality monthlies out there, like Discover, that we are more likely to be in," she says.

Another compelling reason for doing post-embargo releases is that you are no longer restricted by the media filter in reaching key audiences. Remember you are media. Releases posted on the distribution services EurekAlert!, Newswise, or Ascribe appear on Google News, Yahoo! News, and other online news sources right along with media stories.

What's more, post-embargo releases can be picked up directly by Google, even if they are only posted on your Web site. You induce the googlebot—the software that searches out Web pages to list on Google—to directly crawl your institution's news Web pages to extract links to post-embargo releases not sent to media. To request to have your news site crawled, send a message to Include the URLs of the news pages you want Google to crawl. One search engine consultant suggests that sites are more likely to be crawled if they have a prominent site index.

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© 2010 by Dennis Meredith
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