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If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Break It

Last week, Andrew Hyde and I were lucky enough to attend a discussion on the role and value of embargoes in science journalism, held by Stempra (The science, technology, engineering and medicine public relations association), an organisation which connects people from across the spectrum of science communication and runs a varied calendar of events. The discussion was entitled, “Hold the front page: Science and the embargo,” and posed the following questions:

Science journalism is often governed by embargoes, a "gentlemen's agreement" that dictates when a story can be reported. But what is their purpose? Do they make for better science reporting or are they just a tool for journals and press officers to manipulate the media with? When is a story just too good to keep the embargo and should the public interest come first?

The panel consisted of journalists Robin McKie (The Observer) and Steve Connor (The Independent), and from the other side of the fence, Katrina Nevin-Ridley (Head of Media at the Wellcome Trust) and Tony Kirby (from the Lancet press office), and while no one was wholly in favour of abandoning embargoes altogether, there was a great deal of high-quality discussion and debate on the matter.

"Time," said Robin McKie on Tuesday night, "is God's way of preventing everything happening at once." Embargoes, on the other hand, are journals' and press officers' way of ensuring everything happens at the same time (most of the time, anyway – Today, after all, waits for no man). Katrina Nevin-Ridley talked about the new considerations brought about by the constantly rolling tickers of a society in which 24-hour news is the norm, especially with sites like Google News that allow readers to watch the big stories as they break and spread, almost in real time. This is a model that suits the daily newspapers best and tends to afflict the Sundays the most, hence their bad rep when it comes to breaking embargoes.

So, are embargoes respected? The panel seemed to think so – given the number of papers press released, breaks are pleasingly rare. However, sometimes journalists do "forget" the embargo time or find that the dog somehow ate their global clock and – oops! – now their story is online. As Craig Brierley from the Wellcome Trust pointed out, press officers aren't going to stop pitching stories to newspapers and radio shows just because they have broken embargoes in the past and a certain degree of self-policing takes place. Nevin-Ridley noted that although embargoes are just a gentleman's agreement, not everyone is a gentleman. An explanation for the break (if it's a decent one) and an apology and promises for better behaviour in the future are generally enough. Journalists could, of course, go for the big exclusive every day but this position is unlikely to be tenable for long and such rogue hacks will find embargoed information increasingly hard to come by.

But do embargoes serve the public's interest? Various audience members highlighted the problem of “churnalism” whereby increasing numbers of news stories consist of little more than recycled copy from press releases and the news wires (see also David Bauder’s Associated Press story on this subject yesterday); these stories are then read by thousands or even millions of people. This means that a lot of power lies in the hands of the press officer to shape news coverage. The panel agreed that, on balance, embargoes are in the best interests of the public because, as Connor pointed out, they give journalists the time to prepare a more measured, thoughtful and analytical article on a complex topic. They also allow press officers to ensure that the busy authors of the papers are available for interview during a certain block of time prior to publication. Maybe the resulting stories won't be ten times better than if they had to be churned out as soon as possible after the paper is published and maybe embargoes are just a form of news management in which institutions, funders and journals compete to get the best coverage. However, Connor suggested that, on balance, embargoes definitely do benefit the public but that the rules and regulations they impose are perhaps best broken in very exceptional circumstances.

Of course, when it comes to public interest and the dissemination of scientific research, the ability to immediately read – without charge – the original study behind the news coverage is of great importance. It's easy to tempt lazy journalists, in need of a story, right now, to simply tweak a press release slightly to turn it into a news article. The availability of the research article, free and online, puts the power back in the hands of the readers so that they can see for themselves what the research actually involved and what conclusions can and can't be drawn from it. Papers published in PLoS's open-access journals are embargoed until 5 p.m. Pacific Time on the day before the paper is published – the approximate time the article is available online – for this reason.

The linguist Roger Lass said (on explaining language change, although the point is still valid here), "There may well be areas in which second-best is best, because first-best is simply not possible in principle." Perhaps the use of embargoes in science communication is only second-best but in the absence of a better system, it certainly does a pretty good job. Even if embargoes are occasionally broken, the system itself ain't broke just yet.

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