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This post is not embargoed: What you need to know about embargo policies

This post is not embargoed: What you need to know about embargo policies

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We have a guest post today from Ivan Oransky, executive editor of Reuters Health and co-author of the newish Embargo Watch and Retraction Watch blogs. Here, he has some tips for dealing with embargoed medical research.

If you don't spend much of your time on the health beat covering studies – and some would say that's a good thing – you may wonder why every newspaper, wire service, and radio and TV station seems to report on the same studies at the same time every week.

That's because so many of the journals and scientific societies that publish findings release material to reporters on an embargoed basis, often using a service such as Eurekalert. Journalists who publish stories before those embargoes lift can be punished by losing access to future materials.

As I noted in my introductory blog post at Embargo Watch:

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."

Vincent Kiernan doesn't agree. In his book, Embargoed Science, Kiernan 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.

And if that weren't enough, an extension of embargoes – known as the Ingelfinger Rule – can really stymie reporters' attempts to cover unpublished research. That rule is named for the late Dr. Franz Ingelfinger, who was editor of The New England Journal of Medicine from 1967-1977. Ingelfinger began a policy there – now taken up by many other journals – that said the journal would reject papers if their findings had been reported by the media first.

Journals and societies all deal with embargoes – and what happens when they're broken – differently. Two of the most consistent are the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and the Archives journals, all published by the American Medical Association, and Nature and other journals published by the Nature Publishing Group.

Others are less consistent. Some refuse to lift embargoes even when some outlets have reported on studies. Others – notably the New England Journal of Medicine – insist on some ridiculously short embargoes, which for me calls into question whether they should claim their policy is in place to help journalists.

Then there are journals that embargo materials that are actually already published, or set an embargo that lifts at a reporter's local time – which means a website in New York gets a jump over one in Los Angeles. One journal, the American Journal of Kidney Diseases, recently did both at once.

All of that inconsistency is great fodder for Embargo Watch, but more importantly, it suggests that the real purpose of embargoes is to control the flow of information. Journals and societies don't like hearing that, but journalists who cover health and medicine should at least consider the big picture before agreeing to a particular policy.

So what should you do if confronted with a problematic or restrictive embargo? You could do what USA Today's Steve Sternberg did last month, and turn the tables after doing a bit of digging.

Sometimes it works to just discuss the policy with the embargoing institution and get them to change it. Just remember this mantra: You can't embargo something that is already in the public domain.

If that fails, get in touch with me. At least two societies have done away with problematic policies about which I wrote posts. And the Association of Health Care Journalists is looking for examples of restrictive policies at medical conferences, so let me know about those too.

Ivan Oransky, MD, is executive editor of Reuters Health and teaches medical journalism at New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. He is also treasurer of the Association of Health Care Journalists. You can find his blogs at Embargo Watch and Retraction Watch, and follow him on Twitter.

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