This is the last in a series of posts on science news embargoes and the Ingelfinger rule. My first, second and third posts look at why the conventions fall short, and the post at hand details alternatives put forth by science communication experts.

Yes, there is light at the end of this embargo/Ingelfinger tunnel! Read two journalists’ opinions about ways to improve science news production below. Photo by JarkkoS/Flickr.com

In today’s media landscape, with information and breaking news a click away, the embargo system and the Ingelfinger rule hinder journalists from sharing scientific and medical information with the public in real time.

By emphasizing the novelty of research rather than its merit, the embargo system leaves little room to investigate the institutions and decisions behind the production of science. Kiernan argues (1997) that embargoes “undermine” the depth and breadth of science coverage and leave investigative journalism on the sidelines. Fishing for controversy should never be journalists’ only focus, but there needs to be professional space between writers and the people and institutions they focus on, especially in light of reporters’ strong working relationships with the scientific community for access and story “scoops.”

But one can argue that using embargoes seems rational in today’s media climate. One report examining news-gathering at a major science conference suggests that a journalist’s number of deadlines is positively associated with his reliance on press releases for ideas (Dunwoody, 1979). It’s likely this trend holds true in modern newsrooms as well. In addition, promoting an increase in investigative coverage of science can be difficult, as time and financial resources are increasingly stretched. Finding ways to inspire journalists to investigate areas in which they lack expertise” can pose challenges, too.

Don’t despair, though: there are alternatives. For one, scrapping the Ingelfinger rule would allow larger discussions about the quality of peer-reviewed work before and after a given study is published (Altman 1996). Even more, institutions such as the National Institutes of Health could include provisions in grant awards that protect scientists’ rights to discuss their research, regardless if it’s being reviewed by a journal. Such a framework can undermine the Ingelfinger rule altogether.

More realistically, however, it’s journalists who will need to push for change. Some science journalists have given this considerable thought and advocate for leaving both Ingelfinger and embargoes behind. Reuters Health executive editor, Ivan Oransky, leads efforts to change science journalists’ dependence on the institutions they cover. His popular blog, Embargo Watch, tracks issues and inconsistencies of the embargo system, and his work has led to changes in journals’ policies. As evident from Oransky’s success, science journalists possess considerable power in altering journals’ rules.

Here’s a presentation Oransky gave at UW-Madison last year. I wasn’t able to go, but appreciated the slides being posted online.

Former Scientific American editor in chief John Rennie (check out his blog here) also believes journalists can drive the move away from embargoes and Ingelfinger. But as long as journalists are complacent with relying on embargoes, not much will change, he adds. This point is important, especially because journalists work close to deadlines and often depend on embargoed information to plan their weekly coverage (Kiernan, 2006). In a sense, altering behavior can even be viewed as more work for reporters. Rennie says the role of journalists is to serve the public. To achieve this, writers should toughen up and work around relying on the “crutch” of the embargo system.

Yet both Oransky and Rennie point out that even if journalists dissolve embargoes, the Ingelfinger still places a substantial constraint on the flow of scientific information. In the past 5 years, science journalists have used social media and blogging platforms to directly share scientific findings from conferences with the general public. Yet journalists still struggle to gather the details sometimes needed to produce high quality science news because of the Ingelfinger rule. For example, scientists presenting preliminary results at a conference may refuse to answer journalists’ questions about their research out of fear of not being published. Interestingly, this has been the case even when the event is sponsored by the journal in question.

“Journals vary in how strictly they apply the rule, but it’s become clear to me that Ingelfinger, much more than embargoes themselves, is what gives journals the stranglehold they have over scientific information,” Oransky says. Instead, he describes embargoes as “symptoms” of the Ingelfinger rule, even though the geneses of the two conventions vary greatly.

To help move journalists beyond the embargo system, Rennie proposes an experiment, where science journalists are challenged to avoid writing about a study until six months have passed from it being published in a journal. The concept builds upon the idea that embargoed news does not highlight the most newsworthy research people ought to know about, but rather studies resembling “infotainment” and hype that temporarily draw in Internet traffic. “Maybe the right way to write about research is not to race to it, but to take the time to let the rest of scientific community respond,” Rennie says. This way, only the research that withstands post-publication scrutiny will receive attention. Plus, this would encourage journalists to seek more interactions with scientists and cover research as a process rather than as unrelated fragments.

If journalists change, embargo services and journals will likely follow suit. In efforts to maintain profits and control, press offices will alter their approaches, packaging studies and research in a broader context to meet the needs and preferences of science journalists, Rennie says. Even though he says he’s not in favor of placing time premiums on information, Rennie suggests that journalists can slowly change the kind of news press officers choose to embargo or even faze embargoes out entirely. One roadblock, however, is budget issues, and until editors and news organizations make efforts to invest in high quality coverage of science and medicine, they will be limited in their success. As institutions and universities continue to develop larger public relation offices, they also gain highly skilled science writers that can produce copy that’s just as good as that of journalists. Because of this, it’s important for independent writers to provide context and seek sources outside of press releases for their blogs and articles.

In sum, embargoes on scientific and medical information and the use of the Ingelfinger rule benefit journals and journalists, not the entity both institutions claim to serve: the public. By assessing arguments in favor of each convention, it has become clear that the costs of maintaining such rules are too high to justify their existence. Looking forward, scientists, journal editors, press officers, and science journalists should work together to serve the well-being and interests of the public. Until all parties work together, journalists can begin exploring more investigative and creative methods of covering science and medicine.

Thanks for reading.

For perspective (and fun), here’s a humorous cartoon account of how some press officers may view embargoes.

Works Cited

Altman, L. (1996). The Ingelfinger rule, embargoes and journal peer review — part 2. The Lancet, 347, 1459-1463. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(96)91689-

Dunwoody, S. (1979). News-gathering behaviors of specialty reporters: a two-level comparison of mass media decision-making. Newspaper Research Journal, 1, 29-41.

Kiernan, V. (1997). Ingelfinger, embargoes, and other controls on the dissemination of science news. Science Communication, 18(4), 297-319. doi: 10.1177/1075547097018004002

Kiernan, V. (2006). Embargoed Science. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Oransky, Ivan. Personal communication. April 2011.

Rennie, John. Personal communication. April 2011.

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