“Look, this is one of those things where journals can come up with lots of reasons why they chose to do something,” he said. “It’s not at all clear to me why, within 24 hours of learning of this announcement, they couldn’t have given their press lists a draft. This gets to the concern about an embargo break, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense either. Either you trust the system you created or you don’t, and if you have that little faith in your system, then you have created a pretty bad system.”

He’s right. The only reason to that reporters should agree to the embargo system is the understanding that they’ll have enough time to do their work. If the journals can’t provide that, they’re not living up to their end of the bargain.

Perhaps there was a high risk that someone was going to jump the gun with the H5N1 story, but journals can’t have it both ways with embargoes. Science and Nature should have shared a draft of the announcement letter, noting that the final text was subject to change, as soon as they’d received it (after all, Nature had plenty of time to write a related editorial and news article).

The journals failure to do so doesn’t let journalists off the hook entirely, however. On Twitter, science journalist Carl Zimmer argued that, even on short notice, “any competent, motivated reporter could track down an opponent of lifting the flu research moratorium in 15 minutes.”

That’s a fair point. The H5N1 research is a massive, ongoing story and the press should’ve been more prepared for this announcement. After scientists suspended their work last January, there was a massive international debate about whether to publish two papers describing earlier experiments in which teams from Wisconsin and the Netherlands tweaked the virus so that it spreads easily among ferrets, which are considered good models for the way the flu behaves in humans.

The debate drew considerable media attention, but after the papers were eventually published in Nature and Science, the press lost interest in the moratorium, which at the outset was only supposed to last 60 days, and all but forgot about federal efforts to draft guidelines that would allow the bird-flu research to continue. When the National Institutes of Health released a draft framework in December, for instance, it hardly got any coverage.

So there’s a limit to how much journalists can complain about the short notice. Science and Nature should have given them more time, but if they’d been following the story more closely, they would’ve seen the signs that the moratorium’s days were numbered.

 

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.