Not Exactly Rocket Science

One of the highlights of the World Conference of Science Journalists was the final day’s heated debate about embargoes. For newcomers to the issue, journalists are often given press alerts about new papers before they are made publicly available, on the understanding that they aren’t reported before a certain deadline – the infamous embargo. This is why so much science news magically appears at simultaneously across news outlets. All the major journals (and many minor ones) do this with their papers, as increasingly do universities and other research institutions.

Vincent Kiernan (who has written a book deriding this practice) launched the first volley against embargoes by urging journalists to “just walk away” from them. He described them as a set of “velvet handcuffs”, leashing journalists to the goal of providing “infotainment or carry[ing] water for scientific establishments” instead of their giving people the information they need. To him, embargoes play on the “pack mentality” of journalists, luring them in with the fear of missing a story. Far from duplicating the same news as everyone else, society, he says, needs journalists to “follow news noses to find stories that establishment doesn’t want you to cover”. That is the key to flourishing in the era of new media – to provide unique content not via embargoed material.

Kiernan paved the road for an even more brutal (and much louder) onslaught by Richard Horton, editor of an obscure medical journal called the Lancet, who suffers from a 14-year embargo addiction. Looking like he was on the verge of spontaneously detonating (and noting with possible accuracy that he was about to get himself fired), he derided journalists for “equating reproduction with communication” and writing material filtered through the lens of biased press releases. “You’re sold your soul to publicity masquerading as science,” he shouted, adding that embargoes hand power over to journals, allowing them to dictate to institutions that have actually done the work.

To me, both these arguments are reflective of the massive conflation that pervaded the entire debate. The anti-embargo side consistently equated embargoes (which, let’s face it, are just time constraints) with the press releases they are actually constraining. Geoff Watts of BBC Radio also noted this conflation. A further logical leap was made in assuming that the very existence of press releases (and thus embargoes) necessarily leads to shoddy churnalism, and I’d like to think that this blog, at the very least, is an exception to that model.  

Similarly, the concept that ridding science reporters of embargoes would foment more investigative journalism is surely too simplistic. As Nick Davies discussed in his much earlier session, PR leads to poor journalism by exploiting structural problems that are already present – lack of reporters, tight deadlines and increasing workloads which lead to less time per story.

These overarching factors, much more so than any inherent laziness, are the reasons that even enterprising journalists regurgitate press releases. Stripping away embargoes, or even those releases, isn’t going to magically solve the underlying lack of time.  Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre rightly picked Kiernan up for this failure to make the case that embargoes have precipitated a loss of investigative reporting. When pushed, he conceded that the “real problem is not the embargo”, it’s the competitive system we work in and time-specific nature of editorial demands.

What of the reverse question – will the loss of embargoes lead to a deluge of scoops? Watts thinks not, saying that scoops are relatively uncommon in science journalism. When they exist and are sufficiently big, they aren’t drowned out by other embargoed material. Indeed, Mark Henderson, Science Editor at the Times, noted that the embargo is a simple, benign “bilateral agreement about information provision that is often fetishised as a big rule”. It’s often not appreciated that if information is sourced through another route (investigative ones, say, rather than press alerts), then embargoes don’t apply and journalists are at liberty to report at their convenience (as Paul Sutherland did with his Mars scoop).

In light of this, Henderson noted that the much bigger problem is the Inglefinger rule, the draconian policy where a journal will only consider publishing research if it has not been submitted elsewhere or already reported. The rule scares researchers away from talking about their work for fear of the journal’s retribution. But critically, at that point in the proceedings, the news has not been embargoed and no press release has been written.

Watts summed it up by dismissing the embargo issue as a “minor technicality in larger debate about media”. He eloquently compared the lot of the journalist to that of a fighter pilot – parachutes aren’t desirable because it’s better that the plane doesn’t crash at all but until that risk is non-existent, you’d be daft to disregard this necessary safety measure. Likewise, embargoes provide both journalists and science as a whole with benefits that it would be remiss to ignore.

For a start, they “bring a measure of order to chaotic flow of events”. Predictability allows you to allocate time to more thorough investigation, contacting people, digging into background and so on. I wholeheartedly agree. I find it a tremendous help to be able to plan what I want to write about in a given week, to select the most interesting of forthcoming papers and to take time over assessing the quality of potential fodder. And I do this in my spare time; it’s even more pertinent for people working on busy news desks and particularly for broadcasters who need to deploy film crews.  

But first and foremost, the main benefit of embargoes is that they lead to more overall science coverage. While they may certainly skew the balance away from smaller journals, they also skew the balance towards smaller stories. Watts alluded to this, positing a hypothetical embargo-free world where important stories will get covered anyway, but those that fail to shatter earth (such as this piece on the learning ability of sticklebacks) simply won’t get in. If these interesting but less practically important works do somehow fight off competition for column space in one paper, it is unlikely that opposition outlets will pick them up. And that will be a massive shame for science and the general public alike.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the winning argument. I am a scientist first and a journalist second and my concern is far less for the prevalence of investigative journalism than it is for giving the public more and more opportunities to hear about science. It is those opportunities that are in danger of becoming endangered should embargoes vanish.

You could, of course, argue that this greater quantity of science coverage is a shallow victory when so much is regurgitated or inaccurate. But, as I’ve noted earlier, this is not the fault of the embargo – it’s a fault of journalistic practices fuelled by other structural problems. For many journalists, embargoes actually give you the time to not regurgitate and to craft material more carefully. This is especially true for the biggest stories (ironically those would probably get covered without an embargo, and indeed, whose embargoes are most commonly broken) that need good analysis.

More on science journalism

 

Comments

  1. #1 Strange Loops
    July 4, 2009

    Hey Ed, long time reader, first time commenter (heh, I had to say it).

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m a scientist myself (okay, okay, an all-but-diss grad student), but my passion has always been the philosophy, history and communication of science.

    I’m curious — how does one get access to the embargoed stories? What sort of journo-cred is required? I’ve seen things from the other end (from behind my university’s science PR dude and how he preps material to send out for an embargoed story), but no idea how science journalists get access to that.

  2. #2 John Timmer
    July 4, 2009

    I’ve seen the Lancet editor make that argument in print. What I’ve not seen him do is actually describe what reporters would be investigating. Did he do anything of the sort at the SCSJ?

    In any case, i think there’s a tremendous value to giving people the chance to digest papers before they can report on something, especially in light of the problem with press releases and the like. Ida was a great example – a claim via promotion done straight to the press that’s completely absent from the paper. You can see similar things with the recent “birds aren’t dinosaurs” and “orangutans are humans’ closest relatives” press releases. Both contained overblown claims that peer review didn’t allow into the actual papers.

    So, my counterargument would be that peer review acts as a restraint on scientists’ advancement of their pet ideas, and the embargo system improves the chances that press coverage incorporates the results of peer review.

  3. #3 Ed Yong
    July 4, 2009

    Strange Loops – different press offices have different policies on what sort of people they allow on their list, ranging from fairly relaxed to utterly draconian. There are aggregators like Eurekalert and AlphaGalileo, but your university press office probably has a list of journos that they distribute to.

    John – I wholeheartedly agree and no, there wasn’t much detail given from those calling for more investigative reporting as to what that might entail (at least, not that I recall).

    The Ida paper was the ultimate example of worst practice. There was a half-hearted embargo in that some of the scientists blabbed to the media first, while the paper was only provided to certain journalists under incredibly restricted conditions. (I know you already know this btw; I’m citing it as an case study for other readers).

  4. #4 Comrade PhysioProf
    July 4, 2009

    Similarly, the concept that ridding science reporters of embargoes would foment more investigative journalism is surely too simplistic.

    What kind of “investigative journalism” could science journalists possibly engage in that relate to scientific discoveries per se, and not things like corruption or fraud? Unlike in the case of traditional arenas for investigative journalism, such as government and politics, science journalists have no recognized right of access to the people who could possibly give them information about new scientific discoveries before they are published.

    If some reporter came snooping around asking me questions about what other people in my field are doing, I’d tell her to go fuck herself. And if any of my trainees or collaborators disclosed unpublished information to a science journalist about things going on in my lab without my permission, I’d crush them.

    So, what could a science journalist possibly “investigate” in a way that doesn’t depend upon either published information, or information provided with the consent of the scientists and/or journal publishers?

  5. #5 Sojournposse
    July 5, 2009

    Well done, Mr Yong, for raising this issue.

    Never mind the embargo, I find that many science journalists, especially those working for trade rags, sell out big time anyway. Scoop? What is that? At the life science publication I am currently at, so-called journalists are no more than a mouthpiece for pharma and agchem companies. They let the PR people edit their copies, and they thrive on press junkets – especially overseas trips – sponsored by these companies.

    Some don’t even have science or technology background (degree in journalism only). Those who have the qualifications got swept away by the PR/press machine – because they have bills to pay, or when the opportunity comes, leave to pursue science once more.

    Thankfully, this is the kick in the arse that I need. This summer, I will go back to uni to do social sciences again (well, digital anthropology). The world needs knowledge, wisdom and guidance – which science might be able to provide – not another PR noise.

    So thank goodness for rubbish journalism.

  6. #6 Stephen Serjeant
    July 6, 2009

    Since when was the Lancet obscure?

  7. #7 David Dobbs
    July 7, 2009

    Comrade Physioprof asks:

    “What kind of “investigative journalism” could science journalists possibly engage in that relate to scientific discoveries per se, and not things like corruption or fraud?”

    The kind that looks at science gone awry. Like, for example, the overexpansion of the PTSD diagnosis (http://is.gd/1qfES) or the growing debacle over the DSM-V. That’s watchdogging.