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Dr David Whitehouse

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Science's Little Secret

Posted: 09/12/11 16:31

I will let you in on a secret. In my email I have a list of many important headline-making science stories, but I'm not allowed to tell you about them.

What's more, thousands of other science journalists across the globe are in the same position. They are all sitting on stories they know will be important news in a few days time, but they will leave them in their inboxes when they go home tonight.

But journalists are a competitive if not carrion bunch, I hear you say, willing to elbow their way past the competition to make sure that their outlet rises above the rest. Why have they cast aside good journalistic instincts and principles to provide for their outlet the latest news, preferably brought to their readers ahead of the competition?

It is because many, though not all, journals that publish scientific research operate an embargo system. They send out details of forthcoming articles provided journalists agree to keep quiet until a specified time.

Some maintain it's a reasonable thing to do, but I think the embargo system is a pernicious interference, on many levels, in the process of science and in the flow of information between scientists and the public, who after all are their paymasters. It is something that journalists should not do, but we all do it, willingly, because we have no choice if we want to stay plugged into the journal's safe and steady stream of stories.

Some journalists like the embargo system, though I think it encourages lazy reporting and props up poor correspondents. We have many fine science reporters, but there are some poor ones that do little else but reproduce press releases and embargoed copy. Scoops, what every journalist should want, are few and far between in science the embargo process militates against them. When the embargo lifts there they are, clones of the same story spread across many news outlets, often with exactly the same quotes. Embargoes, and the knowledge that other outlets have seen the same stories, often use up a reporter's time on stories that are probably not that important anyway.

Embargoes are also one of the reasons why some Sunday newspapers run such daft science stories, over hyped and strained beyond their credibility. Many journals that come out at the end of the week won't let Sunday journalists in on the system, too much temptation to bust an embargo they say. But if it results in the Sundays sometimes being off beam, it also sometimes produces something spectacular. It was The Observer, outside the embargo system, that got the scoop about Dolly the cloned sheep in 1997 even though thousands of other journalists worldwide already knew about it, had done their interviews and written their articles, but couldn't release them for another four days.

Journals say the embargo is a good thing and that it creates a level playing field among journalists, and concentrates attention on serious research that has been approved by other scientists. They add that it allows journalists time to work on their reports, carry out filming and interviews, so that they get the science right.

All this is poppycock and patronising to boot. What good journalist wants a level playing field? Journalists, if they are up to the job, are hunters wanting to get the best stories for their outlets first, they are not so impressed by stories that have been 'approved' by scientists, and they are used to producing accurate reports to tight deadlines and when it comes to "getting the science right," they don't, or shouldn't, need such help.

Many scientists also dislike embargoes and resent being unable to talk to a journalist about their work because if they subsequently want to submit it to a journal because it will be rejected if it has already been aired in the media. I've been to conferences and sat through presentations, but when I go up to the scientist for more information they say they can't speak to me! Journals and the private companies behind them have no business telling scientists who they can and cannot talk to or hold their careers hostage this way.

Another thing is that the internet is making the embargo system a nonsense. It's a common occurrence to be able to find out all the information on the internet about an embargoed story, in the form of a conference presentation, but despite the fact that the information is 'out there' and available to all, the reporter still has to sit on their hands.

The embargo system is actually a marketing tool for the journals allowing them to maximise publicity, and thus be a bigger draw for advertisers to increase their profits. The bottom line is that most science journals do not exist solely for the high moral purpose of fostering good science, but to make money for their owners. It is indeed a scandal that research that has been funded by the taxpayer is manipulated this way for the commercial interests of a private company or international consortium.

If we dumped the embargo system we would have better science journalism, and better science communication between the scientists and the public, and it would free science journalists to be, well, journalists.

So look at your newspaper, or favorite website, next Wednesday night, and just wonder where all those science stories have suddenly come from, and why they are all almost the same.

 

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