Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Goddam, But I Hate Embargoes

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Image: Orphaned?

Embargoes: you either love them or hate them, and I hate them. No, let me rephrase: I despise embargoes. In fact, science story embargoes have been my daily rant for literally years. No, really. Every f*cking day. Well, except maybe for Sundays, which is devoted to ranting about all those religious wackaloons who have been trying to recruit visiting the previous week and preaching at me when I was absent-minded enough to open the door. But until a few months ago when I finally managed to relocate to Germany to live with my spouse, no one but my parrot pals ever heard these rants.

Until now, that is.

“Blog it,” said my spouse after my latest rant, ignoring my murderous glares frustration murderous glares. “You’re a blogger; blog writing is what you do! So .. Blog It!”


He does have a point.

But I am getting ahead of myself. First, let me explain what embargoes are for those of you who wonder why I have my panties in a twist about this.

Embargoes are arrangements between scientific organizations and the media where the journalists who cover scientific publications are provided advance access to research papers from journals or meetings so they have time to interview the sources and (presumably) do a better job writing about complex scientific studies. As a bonus, nearly all the coverage appears simultaneously — no news outlet gets scooped, and it’s a sure thing all around.

Except for the tiny little fact that .. it isn’t a sure thing at all because MSM generally does a poor job covering science even with this head-start, and because science blog writers, even those with a very long track record, are routinely denied access to embargoed literature as a matter of policy. As a scientist who writes about science on two blogs, this stupid policy enrages me.

One argument that I’ve heard for denying blog access to embargoed literature is that a blog writer has no employer or editor to “punish” them by revoking their literature access if they break embargo. But this is really a stupid argument. If a MSM reporter breaks embargo, their organization is almost never “punished” by having their literature access revoked, so even if the individual journalist is “punished” (unlikely; science writing is their job after all!), they still have access to the literature because their fellow journalists can still access it and give it to the leaker.

This ignores the fact that if a humble blog writer, especially an independent blog writer like me, breaks embargo, revoking our access to the literature is disproportionately damaging. Revoking a blog writer’s literature access is tantamount to killing her. Certainly, as the sole author of this blog, I am ultimately responsible for the words that are published here, so there is no way I can claim that I wasn’t the one responsible for the embargo break. I don’t have any dumbass colleagues with itchy “publish” fingers to blame, and no editor whom I can appeal to for support when all hell is breaking loose due to an embargo break. Further, there is no way in hell that I can get my hands on embargoed literature if my access is revoked. So if I break embargo, I will be stuck begging people, sometimes dozens of people, for the PDFs once again, and then playing “catch-up” by writing about the science in the hours or days after the embargo has ended or been lifted.

I’ve also heard the argument that I have to “prove” that I can keep my mouth shut before I am allowed to have access to embargoed literature. It’s the old familiar “chicken and egg” argument, except I view it as a not-very-subtle camouflage for a policy that serves only to maintain the Old Boyz Network, meant to keep out anyone who is different.

But once again, I have proven myself. Occasionally, I have been given some very exciting embargoed papers by their authors who like my writing, and I’ve agreed with the authors to honor the embargo for the privilege of reading their paper at my leisure and talking with them on the phone and by email as I work on my story. Never have I broken an embargo, and never have I breathed a word about who has provided advanced copies of their embargoed papers to me (and I never will, either). So I have proven that I can and will honor embargoes. I can and will, if necessary, ask these scientists to vouch for my trustworthiness to EurekAlert!

But maybe such an involved argument with EurekAlert! is not necessary. I was thrilled when I was recently invited by some of my contacts at Science to register with EurekAlert!. For the first time in many long years, I felt validated. I felt I’d won some sort of seal of approval from one of the major journals whose science stories I’ve enjoyed “translating” for the public. So I was only too happy to fill out EurekAlert!’s online registration form once more. Unfortunately, after I submitted this application, it took the powers-that-be only four minutes total to reject my application.

Seriously: four minutes. It took me longer than four minutes to fill out their registration form. Not only that, but since I am on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean from EurekAlert! offices, I’ll bet that at least half of those four minutes were devoted to electron transmission: relaying my online answers to their press officer, who opened my application and then promptly relocated some more electrons by sending their standard email rejection to me. So how many seconds did it take them to actually read my application and decide to reject me? I’m betting it took their information gatekeeper only a few seconds, and certainly no more than two minutes. How’s that for respecting what I do, respecting what I’ve devoted years of my life to doing independent of any financial rewards .. simply for my love of science?

After years of rejections for even the simplest of jobs (shoveling french fries into supersized cardboard boxes to feed a rapidly-ballooning American population, for example), you’d think I’d be an expert at dealing with rejection. But the truth is, I’m not. Rejection is a loss, and unlike happiness, the losses that we experience in our lives are cumulative, so each new loss reminds us of all the other losses we’ve experienced before. It doesn’t take very long before all those losses end up crushing whatever remains of our hopes and dreams.

Here’s my rejection letter.

Greetings:

Thank you for your registration application and request for access to embargoed news through EurekAlert!. After careful consideration of your application, we have made the decision to decline your registration request. All registration decisions are made based upon our eligibility criteria, and your application does not appear to meet the necessary requirements at this time.

EurekAlert! values and recognizes the diversity of the science journalism community. However, EurekAlert!’s policies regarding access to embargoed news, in adherence to Securities Exchange Act guidelines, outline that access is provided only for on-staff and freelance reporters, editors or producers employed by accredited news media outlets.

All applicants and media outlets are reviewed based upon objective criteria including, but not limited to: the volume and frequency of original news content produced; the nature of any professional roles assumed in addition to staff/freelance reporter; and the demonstrated need for access to embargoed information. While we value your interest in obtaining registered access to our Web site, we are bound to enforce our policies uniformly.

Please note that you may still access the many public sections of our Web site, which include our Breaking News section, archive of over 80,000 press releases and more.

Thank you for your interest in EurekAlert! and if you have any questions, please contact us at xxx-xxx-xxxx or webmaster@eurekalert.org.

Warm regards,

Abigail Walker, Publications Assistant – EurekAlert!
AAAS Office of Public Programs
1200 New York Ave. NW Washington DC 20005
[some contact info elided]

First, despite what that email says, I absolutely do not believe that my application was given any sort of “careful consideration” before it was rejected. The fact is that I was rejected outright in a manner that suggests that EurekAlert! functions as an informational gatekeeper, intent upon maintaining the status quo despite the rapidly shifting news media paradigm. The speed of my rejection shows a clear *fail* of the Turing Test, suggesting that no sentient beings actually ever saw my application at all.

This isn’t the first time I’ve registered with EurekAlert!. I have registered with them several times in the past (at the suggestion of a couple of the ScienceBlogs editors who were sick to death of my emails and phone calls, begging them for certain PDFs) and the result was always the same then, too. And astonishingly, the rejection letter was also worded the same all those years ago.

But blog writing about science was new back then, and I was a more mysterious entity in the blogosphere than I am now (I jealously guarded my anonymity for professional reasons), so I suppose those rejections were (somewhat) understandable.

This was the first time I’d ever been invited to register with EurekAlert! — I was invited out of the blue by the real insiders, so I thought the result would be different this time.

Wrong.

Embargoes discriminate against everyone who is not employed by a mainstream news organization, regardless of their proven ability and skill in writing about science for the public. This only reinforces my opinion that EurekAlert! exists solely as an informational gatekeeper to prevent all but the “select few” from accessing science stories, from writing coherently and engagingly about them, and by doing so, they prevent a little healthy competition to those “science writing” hacks in the MSM who lack the ability to deliver a readable and accurate science story.

Most MSM science journalists’ inability to write about science is because they often have little or no science education. According to my sources, most MSM journalists are assigned “the science beat” for a few months at a time on a rotating basis despite the fact that it takes years to understand the scientific literature, the strengths and weaknesses of the techniques, and to know who in the field is reputable and who is not. To be fair, a good science background is not a trivial matter: it requires years of education and dedication, and since science journalism is generally not a very secure job, how many journalists have that sort of time and energy (and money) to invest into becoming a better science writer?

But let’s go through the rejection letter that I received to see if there are any clues in it that might indicate in what ways I am unworthy of access to the embargoed literature. Abigail wrote: “All applicants and media outlets are reviewed based upon objective criteria including, but not limited to: the volume and frequency of original news content produced; the nature of any professional roles assumed in addition to staff/freelance reporter; and the demonstrated need for access to embargoed information. While we value your interest in obtaining registered access to our Web site, we are bound to enforce our policies uniformly.”

  1. the volume and frequency of original news content produced
  2. Despite the fact that I recently got married and relocated from the United States with five parrots to live in Germany where I have only inconsistent and unpredictable wireless access, I still managed to write a few decent science stories. In the past, when I had all the tools I needed, I produced one science story each weekday (five science news stories each week). It is my plan to do what is necessary so I can realize my past productivity level. But the EurekAlert! application only asks for the three most recent stories I’ve published, so I gave those to them. Which makes me wonder how they can assess “the volume and frequency of original news content produced” based on just three stories?

  3. the nature of any professional roles assumed in addition to staff/freelance reporter
  4. Um, not sure how to respond to that.

  5. and the demonstrated need for access to embargoed information
  6. Access to the literature is vital to what I do, and embargoes severely compromise my ability to write about the literature because I cannot access it until after the story has leaked or the embargo has been lifted. And even then, I often have to beg for the PDF from my spouse (a PI at a research institute who has literature access through his emlpoyer), the papers’ authors, my colleagues, or sometimes, the editors at the journals themselves. I am not proud of the fact that I have to (sometimes) send a dozen or so emails in my quest to get the PDF of just one particular paper that I wish to write about, but this is what I’ve had to do for the past six years. And after those emails are sent, I get to wait, sometimes for hours, other times for days before a PDF arrives. (Note that my problems getting PDFs after embargo has lifted has nothing to do with embargoes themselves, and therefore is actually an overall access problem, but that’s another rant best left for another time).

  7. we are bound to enforce our policies uniformly
  8. I am not sure how “uniformly” EurekAlert!’s policy enforcement is, but I’ve heard rumors suggesting that their policies might not be as iron-clad as Abigail is presenting them to be in her letter. Unfortunately, there is little information that I can nail down, so this is purely rumor at this point .. ’nuff said about that!

In short, embargoes do not serve the best interests of science or scientists because they deny access to embargoed literature to those people — science blog writers — who are most likely to invest the greatest amount of time and energy into writing the story accurately and in an engaging way for the public. Since a fair number of science blog writers are scientists themselves, they have the knowledge to present these stories to the public and they also have a vested interest in making sure the science is being reported clearly and accurately. Even if embargoes are a necessary evil — and I remain unconvinced that they are — how they’re applied and dealt with is certainly not uniform, and pretending otherwise is just plain disingenuous.

Addendum 1: oh, hey, guess what? While I was ranting, my contacts at Science were busily doing something behind the scenes because when I checked my email just now, I found a little surprise waiting for me. So even though my comments (and outrage) about this system are still real, I am extremely grateful to the editors at Science for giving me this chance. It’s going to be extremely fun for me to work on these stories and I am going to do my best to not let you down.

Addendum 2: I also posted a brief excerpt on Maniraptora, my Nature Networks blog (for the obvious reason that I’d like access to embargoed Nature material as well) and there are comments there that also might interest you.

Addendum 3: I spoke with Ginger from EurekAlert! on the telephone (yes, it’s long distance: I am in Germany and she is in Washington DC, just to give you an idea of how important this situation is to them) and I am excited to report that I now have full access to embargoed Science material. I am writing this brief note because this issue has been resolved and because Ginger and her colleague, Abigail, were really nice about things. I will publish a more in-depth follow-up about this entire kerfuffle, but that will have to wait for a few hours (probably one day) because I have a short piece that I must finish for the print media and also .. it’s past my bedtime right now.

Comments

  1. #1 John
    March 15, 2010

    In many cases I find blog coverage of a study more helpful for understanding it than media articles, which tend to seek sensational bits (whether or not they’re there). A serious blogger with a large audience ought to be able to get timely access to the research.

  2. #2 Tabor
    March 15, 2010

    I started to write a long and disjointed comment about how (from some personal experience) I found federal grant supervisors are too lazy to review the hundreds of proposals before they go before a review team where the team can skew their approvals…but anyway my point is that Americans and pseudo scientists and non-specific journalists are so ignorant of science and so disinterested that it is bloggers such as yourself that can help turn on those buttons and make sure the science we get is accessible. As you explained your motivation to discuss is pure and not colored by some stock-holder or faculty committee comment.

  3. #3 Grant
    March 16, 2010

    Embargoes discriminate against everyone who is not employed by a mainstream news organization, regardless of their proven ability and skill in writing about science for the public.

    I’ve had a similar experience myself, but I’ll spare you the details!! ;-)

    Seeing your recent success (good for you!), I might try applying directly to the overseas sources (I tried via a local source).

  4. #4 Sarah
    March 16, 2010

    Have you seen Embargo Watch? Ivan might be interested in your thoughts on the topic.

  5. #5 "GrrlScientist"
    March 16, 2010

    thanks for the tip, sarah. i’ll send this url to ivan oransky to see whether/if he’s interested.

  6. #6 Ginger Pinholster
    March 16, 2010

    Hi, Devorah, I’m so glad that we were able to clear up the misunderstanding by telephone. I was glad to receive the followup information from you that EurekAlert! staff had originally requested, and happy that you were eligible for access, with no ineligible dual affiliations. Sorry you don’t like embargoes, but glad for the happy ending! I would like to correct one point above, which is that editors at Science have nothing to do with who gets reporter access to EurekAlert!. EurekAlert!, like Science, is editorially independent. Kind regards, Ginger Pinholster

  7. #7 Ginger Pinholster
    March 16, 2010

    PS, here is a single-serving blog with some additional clarification on bloggers and embargoed access to the AAAS Annual Meeting. EurekAlert! also follows these general principles to assess eligibility and ensure compliance with SEC rules. Thanks for communicating science! http://aaasbloggers.blogspot.com

  8. #8 Mr. GrrlScientist
    March 16, 2010

    Note to self: “Blog it!” doesn’t work.

  9. #9 ThatsBlog.com
    March 29, 2010

    Thanks for your submission to the Seventy Ninth edition of the Blog Carnival: Blogging. Your post has been accepted and its live:

    http://thatsblog.com/blog-carnival-blogging/blog-carnival-blogging-seventy-ninth-edition

    -ThatsBlog.com

  10. #10 TDB
    July 26, 2010

    Sorry for resurrecting an old post, but I’m curious – if something’s embargoed, do you have to wait until it’s published in print to write about it? A lot of journals these days make papers available online well before they’re in print. (I can access the November 2010 issue of J. Cognitive Neurosci., for example.)

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