The Upshot of Embargoes

Oransky launches blog examining controversial publishing standard

A longstanding and controversial topic of conversation within the science journalism community—news embargoes on peer-reviewed research articles—will now receive regular scrutiny at a new blog launched by one of the country’s top medical writers.

On Tuesday, Ivan Oransky, the executive editor of Reuters Health, launched a new site called Embargo Watch that is dedicated to addressing a question that has inspired countless arguments around the world: Are the embargo policies at major scientific journals a good thing or bad thing—and for whom?

“A lot of journals, using services such as, release material to journalists before it’s officially published. Reporters agree not to publish anything based on those studies until that date, and in return they get more time to read the studies and obtain comments,” Oransky explained in his inaugural post, headlined, “Why write a blog on embargoes?”

“That would seem to be a good thing for science and health journalism, much of which is reliant on journals for news because it’s peer-reviewed — in other words, it’s not just a researcher shouting from a mountaintop — and punctuates the scientific process with ‘news events.’”

As almost any science reporter can tell you, however, embargoes have their downsides, too. In a recent post for the Association of Healthcare Journalists’ (AHCJ) blog (which features a useful category dedicated to embargoes), Oransky recounted a fascinating tale about a difficult editorial decision he was recently forced to make due to embargo restrictions.

Last month, Oransky was in the process reviewing a study from the Cochrane Library, which had found that opioid drugs, when used as prescribed, don’t carry a high rate of addiction. Around the same time, he received a press packet from the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, which included a paper that said high doses of opioids, even if prescribed, increased the risk of overdose. Oransky reasoned that the best way to serve his readers would be to write a story that included both studies, but the Cochrane Library study was under an embargo that lasted one day longer than the embargo on the Annals of Internal Medicine study. That left Oransky in a predicament.

“Trouble was, if I ran [a story] based on the Annals study, I couldn’t mention the Cochrane review,” he wrote in his AHCJ blog post. “And if I waited for the Cochrane review’s embargo to lift, a competitor might run the other story. (Yes, we think about these things.)”

Oransky called the media relations manager for the Cochrane Library’s publisher, Wiley, explained the situation, and requested that she move up the embargo. Unfortunately, the publisher declined his wish, offering an explanation that Oransky called “polite” and “thoughtful.” Basically, Cochrane was concerned that if the media covered the research before it was published, readers would not be able to view and judge the research for themselves. But it is fair to ask whether or not the public was, in fact, best served by the Cochrane’s decision.

Because of “resource constraints,” Oransky decided that Reuters Health could only run one story on opioid addiction or overdose that week, so he went with the Annals study, “which seemed a bit more newsworthy than the Cochrane review.” A number of other sites, including some of Oransky’s competitors, did the same. As a result, the Cochrane review ended up getting relatively less attention.

“So whom did this Cochrane embargo serve?” Oransky fairly asked in his AHCJ post. “I’d argue it didn’t serve the public, because we and others couldn’t include news of it in the story we did decide to run. You might even say it didn’t serve Cochrane either, since I’m guessing many of my colleagues decided not to run something on it for similar reasons.”

The world of science journalism is full of similar stories about problems created by the embargo system, and Oransky linked to a number of them in his inaugural post at Embargo Watch. On two separate occasions in 2007, while Oranksy was still a deputy editor at The Scientist, he and his staff questioned the World Health Organization and the New England Journal of Medicine for temporarily blacklisting reporters that had broken embargoes. And, in his second post for Embargo Watch, he questioned The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine for placing an embargo on a story that was already available on HighWire, a electronic publication service used by many journals.

“In other words,” Oransky explained in his post, “according to this embargo, the press can’t write about papers for two weeks while they’re freely available to any HighWire subscriber — and that’s a lot of doctors at a lot of medical schools and hospitals.

“This was a new one for me. Embargoed papers not being available to anyone but the press, sure. But available to many doctors — and anyone doctors showed them to — for two weeks before we could write about them?”

Oransky expressed his concerns to the journal and decided that he would respect its embargo even if he didn’t agree with it. But other journalists have not been as understanding.

In 2008, the Web site TechCrunch announced that “PR firms are out of control. Today we are taking a radical step towards fighting the chaos. From this point on we will break every embargo we agree to.” In August, the Web site reported that The Wall Street Journal had also enacted a new policy declaring that it wouldn’t abide by embargoes unless they were exclusive, but the details were sketchy.

Breaking an embargo can have serious consequences, of course, but so can adhering to them at the expense of more ambitious journalism. At Embargo Watch, Oransky cited a 2006 book by Vincent Kiernan, Embargoed Science, which “argues that embargoes make journalists lazy, always chasing that week’s big studies. They become addicted to the journal hit, afraid to divert their attention to more original and enterprising reporting because their editors will give them grief for not covering that study everyone else seems to have covered.”

Whatever the case, the debate about breaking embargoes and whose interests they serve is extremely important. Oransky wrote that he will use Embargo Watch “to try to keep track of anecdotes about embargoes. Are they helping journalists? Helping journals? Who’s breaking them? And, most important, are they helping the general public?”

“My hope,” he added, “is that by chronicling these stories and trends, I can help make embargoes work better.” Whether that will mean doing away with them or refining them remains to be seen, but at least the debate has a new home.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.