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 PaidContent.org 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.