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Many topics seemed blog-worthy this week, so maybe it would be a better idea to highlight a few links I looked at.

  • Wisconsin’s gun deer hunt kicked off this weekend, a topic tied to a radio piece I plan to produce on the state’s Sporting Heritage Bill.
  • Health news guru Gary Schwitzer cautions against hype about a new stem cell treatment and cautions to never (yes, never) use the word “breakthrough.”
  • My colleague in the pro-track program, Emily Eggleston, wrote a great post about expectations of journalistic objectivity in today’s media climate. Check it out here.
  • Ouch. The AP scolds its reporters against disseminating information about their arrests while covering the Occupy movement. Apparently, the problem is the news getting out by individuals before the organization has time to put it on the wire.
  • Yes — there’s actually a press release titled, “Secrets to the best foie gras.” I’m a bit surprised there’s no mention of how controversial foie gras production is. Just an observation, though. Not sure if the push was for Turkey Day or not.
  • Discovery News‘ Jorge Ribas produced an interesting video about a museum that’s beefing up its interactivity (Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to the website).

Photo by rubybgold/

Justin Canha, a young man living with autism, was recently profiled by New York Times reporter Amy Harmon. She details Justin’s life, with special attention given to his artistic abilities. Photo by Justin Canha from Justin Canha Art.

A recent New York Times profile on a young man expanded my definition of interactivity and provided a unique glimpse into the lives of individuals and families affected by autism. After reading about the piece at the Open Notebook, a place for writers to digest and reflect on their work, I noticed author Amy Harmon uses the term “quick links” to describe a unique aspect of her approach — one where she sprinkles multimedia throughout the article to show, not tell, this young man’s story. The links range from photos and videos to audio slideshows on her subject. The term must be relatively new since the results from a Google search yielded descriptions of stainless steel.

If you take the time to read the 7,000 word article (it’s a doozy, but a darn good one), you’ll encounter a video at the top of the page providing an intro and summary of the author’s time with Justin. She documents his “coming of age” and struggle to gain independence as an adult living with autism. He’s about to leave his school program and wade into the uncertain waters employment and perhaps independent living. Five graphs down, you see your first quick link that opens up a video of Justin telling the camera about his family. Interestingly, the player expands over the text and collapses right back where it came from. The video also gives the viewer a sense of Justin’s mannerisms and personality, which are difficult to convey in plain copy without extensive character development.

Other quick links are slice-of-life videos scattered about the article, some revealing family home videos and others showing Justin’s interactions with others around him. If there’s one thing to say about this style of reporting, it’s certainly intimate. Justin and his family left an enormous hole for Harmon to occupy, which allows us to share experiences with Justin, not read about them. He lives, eats and breathes art and animation, and the article reflects that by quick linking to his great work (here and here). Even by looking at his website, I’m deeply impressed and humbled by his artistic ability, which has earned him awards and helped him sell projects for good money on occasion.

Another interesting choice the author made was using every bit of interactivity she could when discussing autism. When talking about therapies and options for the condition, she hyperlinks to peer-reviewed research to back her claims. I imagine she went to these lengths to battle misinformation that vaccines cause autism or that special diets can help people living with it. Writer Seth Mnookin also puts many of these claims to rest in a recent book with similar evidence.

Overall, I think this was a perfect piece for this type of adventurous interactivity. It gave us a perspective and road map we wanted to partake in.

What do you think? Did the quick links enhance the story? Or were they not as effective at times? Any thoughts?

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/

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.

As noted in previous posts, this analysis stems from a paper I wrote for a graduate science communication course. Having to examine the literature and take a stance, I concluded that embargoes of science news and the use of the Ingelfinger rule place constraints on disseminating science and health information to the public.

Here are my first and second posts in the series.

Photo by the justified sinner/

Why Time is of the Essence

Embargoes and the Ingelfinger rule delay people from receiving scientific information necessary for personal and democratic decision-making. Some journals even withhold releasing an article to compete with others (Altman, 1996).

When a specific body of work is accepted by a journal for publication, the information may fall under the realm of the embargo system. That is, some journals keep hush about upcoming articles and dictate dates when journalists can release their coverage of a study in exchange for early access. Kiernan (1997) writes that embargoes and the Ingelfinger rule not only hinder the public from receiving information, but they also limit research from reaching policy makers who enact laws and regulations that shape policies on health, science and the environment.

Ultimately, Schuchman and Wilkes (1997) write, “…patients are the ones who stand to suffer the most” from these conventions’ chilling effects on information flow. By nature, embargoes and Ingelfinger act against journalism’s fundamental principles, particularly the notion of “first loyalty” to citizens (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2007). Instead, journalists must enter agreements with journals before accessing information.

Of course, science news leads obtained beyond the embargo system aren’t constrained by these rules, but they’re becoming increasingly rare with the growth of online journalism and news organizations’ shrinking budgets. Indeed, true leads may be hard to come by for some journalists who have a slew of other responsibilities.

Even then, not everyone enforces the same rules. Science and medical journals are inconsistent in their treatment of violations of the embargo system and the Ingelfinger rule, resulting in journalists and scientists who are unnecessarily cautious about sharing scientific information. Ultimately, this freezes the flow of information, as scientists may avoid the press in order to ensure getting published. Adding to the problem, Altman (1996) argues the Ingelfinger rule “reinforces the medical profession’s long-standing distrust of journalism.” Although between six and seven studies were pulled each year during Franz Ingelfinger’s time at The New England Journal of Medicine, the number of scientists found in violation of the Ingelfinger rule is not clear at this point (Culliton, 1972). A similar situation has evolved for embargoes, as treatment of violations remains inconsistent and poorly reported until recent years (now the topic is center stagefor some blogs).

In cases in which a journal decides not to enforce the Ingelfinger rule because of the perceived immediacy of findings, scientists may publicize their results and share them with journalists before they are published (Kassirer and Angell, 1994). Again, much of this is at the discretion of scientists and journal editors — not journalists.

Ivan Oransky, executive editor at Reuters Health, says punishing embargo violations has become increasingly inconsistent in recent years. The movement from print-based empires to online cultures has made it difficult to track and punish embargo breaks. In some cases, whether the embargo was broken by a small or large news organization will factor in, while in others, it depends on whether other publications follow suit. Such inconsistency is frustrating to science journalists who do their best to play by the rules.

At times, the journal cycle increases the amount of time it takes for medical findings to reach patients. Photo by Dvortigirl/

Former Scientific American editor in chief and journalism instructor John Rennie also says embargoes’ inconsistent enforcement stunts journalists who are unsure of the consequences. In most cases, journals will temporarily revoke a journalist’s access to embargoed content if the person violates an embargo.

In addition, some argue the embargo system and the Ingelfinger rule give rise to deceiving portrayals of science by focusing on individual studies rather than bodies of research or science trends. Embargoes negatively shape society’s ideas of science and research, Kiernan (1997) writes, distorting how the public perceives science as a process. Rather than acknowledging the amount of time dedicated to a specific study, embargoes focus on the “newness” of the results. In other words, the public is often left without an idea of how long a given project took or even whether it experienced any setbacks during the experimental process.

Schuchman and Wilkes (1997) suggest the public might learn more about the research process if journalists focused on “ongoing stories,” which would require them to follow up on topics previously covered. This is especially important if only preliminary findings were available at the time the topic received coverage. Delving deeper into research methodology would also help the public understand the strength of certain studies over others. They also write that medical journals place too much emphasis on single articles through the embargo system. Press releases touting a single study’s results contribute to this problem. Yet the responsibility of ensuring quality coverage lies with the journalist, not the individual drafting the press release. Although journalists recognize the artificial “newness” of science news being published, it is still coveted and emphasized among science journalists and their editors.

As a result, Rennie believes science coverage hypes the newness of ideas at the detriment of other facets the public may deem relevant or fascinating. One reason the public might be receiving mixed messages about the scientific process results from journalists’ neglect in covering retracted research or journals’ avoidance in publishing negative results. Although retractions haven’t garnered considerable attention in science communication literature, one study by Roy Rada (2007) found that only three of 50 retracted published papers and press releases received attention from news outlets. Rada adds that most journals have inconsistent policies about what ought to be done after studies are retracted. Some journals may release the retraction with a press release while others will print a small notice in the following issue. The fact that the three retracted studies were associated with fraud and scientific misconduct demonstrates journalists’ preferences for what should reach attention: deception. Studies that were retracted because of less controversial errors did not get scooped up, even if their revisions provided information of importance to public health.

This trend, albeit from a small data set, contributes to journalists’ neglect to follow up on research findings and present science as a process rather than fragments of breakthroughs.

In my final post, we’ll look at alternatives to embargoes and Ingelfinger — or at least steps to guide science journalists in the right direction.

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-

Culliton, B. (1972). Dual publication: ‘Ingelfinger rule’ debated by scientists and press. Science, 176(4042), 1402-1405. doi: 10.1126/science.176.4042.1403

Kassirer, J., & Angell, M. (1994). Violations of the embargo and a new policy on early publicity. New England Journal of Medicine, 330(22), 1608-1609. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199406023302211

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

Kovach, B., & Rosenstiel, T. (2007). The Elements of Journalism. New York: Three Rivers Press

Oransky, Ivan. Personal communication. April 2011.

Rada, R. (2007). Retractions, press releases and newspaper coverage. Health Information and Libraries Journal, 24, 210-215. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-1842.2007.00724.

Rennie, John. Personal communication. April 2011.

Schuchman, M., & Wilkes, M. (1997). Medical scientists and health news reporting: a case of miscommunication. Annals of Internal Medicine, 126, 976-982.

This is a second post in a series on the role of embargoes and the Ingelfinger rule in the production of science news. Click here for the first post.

Photo by sAeroZar/

Although proponents of embargoes argue the convention increases the quality and accuracy of science news, there is sparse evidence to support this conclusion. In fact, opponents to both embargoes and the Ingelfinger rule argue they actually degrade the quality of science news. Some even question the quality and reliability of peer-reviewed research, too (Freedman, 2010).

It’s troublesome to assume that embargoes equate to increased quality. As Fred Molitor notes in his 1993 review of media coverage of a study featured in The New England Journal of Medicine, most of the caveats of a given experiment were excluded from newspaper articles despite journalists having extra time for reporting. In the study, researchers found that a group of male physicians who took aspirin had nearly half the number of heart attacks when compared to a control group. Science journalists covering the study, however, neglected to report that men receiving the treatment also experienced strokes, which is arguably an undesirable — even deadly — side effect. Even with extra time to write about the findings under an embargo, journalists did not include the caveats in their coverage, which may have misled readers into thinking the treatment was “risk-free.”

Press releases can degrade the quality of science news as well. Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz (2002) note that press releases generally fail to address studies’ limitations and rarely disclose industry funding. At a more basic level, the authors argue press officers make decisions based on their own sense of “perceived newsworthiness.” Essentially, press officers do not always choose to write releases based on the quality of the research, but rather by the qualities they believe will appeal to journalists and their editors. Schuchman and Wilkes (1997) also point out the fact that embargoes “increase the perceived ‘newsworthiness’ of a journal article, thereby encouraging an over reliance on journals as a source of scientific news.”

Former Scientific American editor in chief and journalism instructor John Rennie says it’s not difficult to tell which stories are embargoed because they seem “interchangeable.” Although the public might not initially see a problem with this type of pack reporting, he believes regular consumers of science news and people who think more critically about the information presented to them notice the lack of diversity. Along these lines, Rennie says the public should want more diversity and creativity in coverage from journalists. Otherwise, he adds, readers could gain their science news from reading press releases alone rather than from independent outlets.

Also called “churnalism,” lifting significant amounts of information from press releases is already receiving attention in Great Britain, where a website now compares press releases with news stories and calculates the percentage of content copied (and even plagiarized!). Embargoes also affect the intensity of competition among journalists. Experienced writers argue embargoes place them on equal grounds with novices, when their expertise naturally allows them to report with a faster turnaround (Kiernan, 2006).

Screenshot comparing a news story with a press release from the website

Losing the “newness” of an embargo also influences journalists’ behavior. In one instance, an ABC News reporter broke an embargo out of fear that he would be “scooped” by other organizations (Kassirer & Angell 1994). Overall, embargoes limit competition before publication and intensify it after their passing.

As emphasized by Miriam Schuchman and Michael Wilkes (1997), access to scientists also affects the quality of science news. In efforts to reduce reporting science and health findings out of context, the authors suggest that “researchers who present papers at meetings or publish them in journals should be available to the press to clarify and explain their findings” and that “closed discussion of research may provoke sensationalism that open discussion could prevent.” Clearly, scientists submitting manuscripts to journals that follow the Ingelfinger rule violate Schuchman and Wilkes’ recommendation altogether.

Using the same argument, Rennie says the Ingelfinger rule is not only a means of competition among journals, it is a mechanism of power. “Frankly, a lot of journals that enforce the rule do so in ways that seem capricious at times.” he says. “…People [scientists] err on the side of caution and do not talk to reporters.”

Critics of embargoes and the Ingelfinger rule argue that the peer review process does not necessarily ensure the information published is always correct or reliable. Lawrence Altman (1996) writes that the process should be viewed as a form of “editing” or even a “tool of editing” rather than a final, irrefutable result. Along these lines, the suggestion favors a view of science as a process that often suffers from the same controversies and errors as other institutions. Although peer review provides the best analysis of scientific research at this time, some scientists estimate — controversially — that the majority medical findings are wrong (Freedman, 2010).

Ivan Oransky, executive editor at Reuters Health, says this view of the peer review process is increasingly common. Even more, embargo providers routinely channel “questionable science” that has not undergone the peer review process or misleads journalists through poorly designed methodology, he says. The lack of quality control on certain embargo websites as well as their tendency to allow institutions to embargo material that has already entered the public domain ultimately degrade the quality and credibility of science news.

In the next post, we’ll look at how embargoes can delay readers and viewers from receiving important health information.

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-

Freedman, D. (November 2010). Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science. The Atlantic, 306(4), 76-84

Kassirer, J., & Angell, M. (1994). Violations of the embargo and a new policy on early publicity. The New England Journal of Medicine, 330(22), 1608-1609. doi:

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

Molitor, Fred. (1993). Accuracy in science news reporting by newspapers: the case of aspirin for the prevention of heart attacks. Health Communication, 5(3), 209-224. doi:10.1207/s15327027hc0503_

Oransky, Ivan. Personal communication. April 2011.

Rennie, John. Personal communication. April 2011.

Schuchman, M., & Wilkes, M. (1997). Medical scientists and health news reporting: a case of miscommunication. Annals of Internal Medicine, 126, 976-982.

Woloshin, S., & Schwartz, L. (2002). Press releases: translating research into news. Journal of the American Medical Association, 287(21), 2856-2858. doi: 10.1001/jama.287.21.285

One critic of science news embargoes likens the practice to journalists operating in a subuniverse through which institutions control the rules in exchange for shortcuts and leads on news. As a result, using the embargo system does not empower journalists, but rather places them within a bubble, where boundaries can be created by institutions to maximize control. Photo by Ernst Vikne/

After researching the history of science news embargoes and the use of the Ingelfinger rule for a graduate course last spring, I came to the conclusion that neither benefits the general public — the same entity often funding scientific and medical research.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll provide evidence why I believe this is the case through posting portions of my original analysis. This series isn’t meant to put down writers who rely on embargoes (full disclosure: I routinely browse them), but rather promote discussion about why these conventions degrade the quality of science news. As a blossoming science journalist, I sometimes fall into the same traps and heuristics I write about. And to be honest, I understand the utility of these systems, especially considering the pressure on writers to produce a constant flow of content in recent years.

Overall, my goal is to look at who benefits the most from these systems and evaluate whether certain alternatives make more sense in the current media landscape. I hope other writers, journal editors and scientists find this summary thorough and worth sharing.

Before continuing, I should thank Ivan Oransky and John Rennie, both of whom took the time to speak with me on this topic (you’ll see their contributions in later posts). Check out their blogs here and here. I should also mention Vincent Kiernan, a leading critic of the systems, who heavily shaped my understanding of these topics.

Science news cycles that rely on journal publishing, though exciting and inspiring, can sometimes deceive readers and viewers into viewing science in fragments rather than as a cumulative process. Photo by Sergei Golyshev/

To begin, covering science is fundamentally different from other topics in journalism. Science journalists, probably more than reporters covering other beats, depend on the institutions and individuals they cover for access to information. Because science progresses as a process within a constructed framework rather than as breaking news events in the world, it requires journalists to engage in multiple layers of access (e.g., through scientists and press officers) in order to obtain primary information often hidden behind paywalls.

Today, two conventions contribute to this already distanced relationship between journalists and science: embargoes and the Ingelfinger rule.

When a journal embargoes the contents of an academic paper or presentation, it places restrictions on when journalists can release their coverage to the public. Essentially, journalists exchange early access to information for a commitment to not disclose embargoed information nor publish until after a time designated by the journal (usually the time of academic publishing) (Kiernan, 2000 & 2006).

On the other hand, the Ingelfinger rule internally prohibits journals from publishing a scientific paper if its contents have been disseminated elsewhere, including other journals or media outlets (Culliton, 1972; Altman, 1996; Kiernan, 2006). In essence, the Ingelfinger rule ensures exclusive rights to scientific information, which serves the primary economic interests and competitive drives of journals. Critics of the rule often say it freezes the flow of information from scientist to journalist, with researchers keeping hush about their work until it’s been accepted by a journal. Once accepted, the content may segue into the domain of an embargo.

The developments of embargoes and the Ingelfinger rule are often left out of the histories of medical and scientific journals, hindering public discussion of their effects outside of professional settings (Kiernan, 1997). However, considering the constraints each places on science journalists, one can gather a rich perspective of how these conventions affect news production and the transfer of information from the lab bench to the public.

Scientists’ views about embargoes and the Ingelfinger rule are not as well cited, which is why the conclusions drawn from this analysis are limited to the journalistic profession and journal editors’ interactions with it.

The embargo system and the Ingelfinger rule are conventions that restrict the flow of information and access in the field of science journalism — an undesirable outcome in light of journalists’ needs to serve public interests and foster democratic decision-making. Despite claims that both conventions increase the quality of science news, they perform the opposite by degrading the quality of science coverage, delaying the public from receiving important information, and presenting science as a study-focused rather than process-focused endeavor. Given the new media landscape and continual specialization required to cover science, journalists and journals should discontinue the use of both the embargo system and the Ingelfinger rule.

Embargoes and Ingelfinger Restrict Information

The embargo system and Ingelfinger rule restrict the flow of science information by controlling access to research findings and the scientists who produce them. In the United States, the embargo organization EurekAlert! only gives access to journalists with contractual or demonstrated ties to news organizations. In previous years, embargoed materials such as manuscripts and data would be faxed or mailed to journalists prior to publication (Kiernan, 2006). Today embargoed information is accessible to journalists with accounts to websites such as EurekAlert! and AlphaGalileo, which store hundreds of studies in a password-protected account. Journalists cannot edit or add to the resources on the websites. Most materials from scientists find their way to journalists through institutions and journals that post content within users’ online account. In contrast, the Ingelfinger rule promotes an inflexible hierarchy of information, as material travels directly from scientists to journals themselves.

Photo of Franz Ingelfinger through Boston University

From its inception, the Ingelfinger rule has sought to restrict information from exiting the peer review system until it’s published. When Franz Ingelfinger, editor of The New England Journal of Medicine from 1967 to 1977, announced the journal would not publish a scientific manuscript that has been disseminated through other journals or any media outlet, he did so to uphold the economic interests of the journal as a business (Kiernan, 1997). He did not disguise his policy as promoting the public good, but rather the economic interests of his journal.

Vincent Kiernan (1997) notes that the four of the most powerful science and medical journals — Science, Nature, The Journal of American Medical Association, and The New England Journal of Medicine — release material through embargoes and enforce different versions of the Ingelfinger rule. Despite the fact that some journals’ interpret the Ingelfinger rule differently, scientists routinely perceive them to be the same. In general, researchers submit to top scientific and medical journals with little resistance to the rule, but it is not clear what they think about avoiding interactions with journalists and the public. One observation states that scientists view journals as career-builders: “The purpose of journals is not to disseminate information, but to promote faculty” (Brook, 1993).

Adherence to embargoes and the Ingelfinger rule has remained relatively stable, but past incidences between journals and government institutions have created exceptions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health all took issue with journals withholding public health information, especially that which is timely and financed through public funds (Bloom 1979; Kassirer & Angell, 1994).

Interventions from government institutions support the assumption that embargoes and the Ingelfinger rule restrict the flow of information, and that such actions are undesirable in promoting optimal public health. For instance, in Vincent Kiernan’s 2000 analysis of an embargo break, he offers the system to be a “subuniverse of reality” in which formal rules are established by institutions and obeyed by players (i.e., journalists) involved. He also writes that the system relies heavily on the agreement of information subsidies that allow institutions to control the subuniverse in exchange for shortcuts and leads on news. As a result, using the embargo system does not empower journalists, but rather places them within a bubble, where the boundaries are designed to maximize control.

Since many science writers rely on the journal cycles for news, they’re often forced to play by the terms and rules of these institutions. As you can imagine, these restrictions can have negative ramifications for science journalists balancing both journals’ and the public’s interests.

In the next post, we’ll look at whether embargoes enhance the quality of science news through giving reporters more time to work on stories. I think you’ll be surprised by what the research shows.

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-X

Bloom M. (1979). Relman stands alone at meeting with reporters. National Association of Science Writers newsletter, 10.

Brook, R. (1993). Using scientific information to improve quality of health care. In: K. Warren & F. Mosteller (Eds.), Doing more good than harm: the evaluation of health care interventions (74-85). New York: New York Academy of Sciences.

Culliton, B. (1972). Dual publication: ‘Ingelfinger rule’ debated by scientists and press. Science, 176(4042), 1402-1405. doi: 10.1126/science.176.4042.1403

Kassirer, J., & Angell, M. (1994). Violations of the embargo and a new policy on early publicity. New England Journal of Medicine, 330(22), 1608-1609. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199406023302211

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

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Before inserting its razor sharp teeth into an unsuspecting animal each night, a vampire bat must find the best place to bite — an area that will keep the blood flowing. But how does it know where to bite when blood pulsing through another creature’s body isn’t outwardly visible?

Vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) have a highly specialized neural system in their noses that help them target where to suck the blood from animals they feed on, according to research by UC-San Francisco scientists.

Think of it as infrared night vision, where a bat senses heat emitted from areas of an animal’s body where there’s more blood flow.

No wonder these bats survive on blood alone, sometimes drinking half their body weight of the stuff in one sitting. Vampire bats also take advantage of anticoagulant chemicals in their saliva that keep the blood flowing once feeding starts.

For years, researchers knew something in the bats’ noses helped them achieve this, but it wasn’t until now that the mechanism became clear. Vampire bats have a molecule called TRPV1 that regulates a bundle of nerve cells in their faces. In humans, TRPV1 is activated when we eat certain spicy foods such as hot chili peppers or to sense intense thermal stimuli like getting sunburnt.

Since the molecule plays a role in types of burning and pain sensation in humans, scientists want to learn more about how it functions to better develop drugs that target it.

To take a better look at how the process works, the team gathered tissue samples from deceased vampire bats from Venezuela, discovering the bats benefit from a genetic phenomenon called RNA splicing that allows genes to produce multiple proteins with different functions. In vampire bats, splicing has resulted in a form of TRPV1 that helped them target where to bite prey, which was likely a favorable trait that helped them survive.

Though other animals have the same genes that produce TRPV1, they do so differently, and the process isn’t as pronounced as in vampire bats. After comparing the genes responsible for thermal sensing to those of other mammals, scientists found that vampire bats were more similar to horses, dogs, cows, moles and dolphins, and more distant to humans, rodents, monkeys and flying lemurs, challenging the idea that bats are closer to our side of the mammal family tree.

Occurring only in Central and South America (sorry, Romania), vampire bats are the only known mammals to have this type of infrared sensing. Other animals such as pit viper snakes can “view” the world through heat as well.

Photo by Dr. Pascual Soriano/Universidad de los Andes

Marc Hauser, whose research has been retracted and scrutinized, serves as a recent example of science media taking a closer look at the scientific process. Photo taken from the Harvard Gazette. By Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office.

How often do retracted studies make headlines?

Think about it.

I can only recall a handful of studies that circled back after they were championed as new findings months earlier. Most recently, Marc Hauser‘s primate cognition work for the journal Science comes to mind. After being called out for fraudulent research and fudged data, Hauser’s study was retracted. His previous findings began to be questioned as well.

Yet this week Science re-released the results of his work, which were replicated from the original 2007 study in question. He and his colleagues have provided video to ensure the soundness of their results.

But setting the record straight doesn’t do much for Hauser’s already tarnished reputation. Which leads me to the question: Why don’t we hear more about retractions for other research? Visibility in the most prestigious journals could have something to do with it. Intentional deceptioin versus accidental errors with data matter too. But I find this somewhat startling, especially considering John Ioannidis’ suggestion that much of medical research is flawed and even outright wrong.

This question — along with how embargoes and the Ingelfinger Rule shape the production of science news — will be covered in a research paper I’m working on. Thankfully, I’ve had the help of two science writers with a keen eye for these issues.

Ivan Oransky, who leads the blog Embargo Watch and co-authors the blog Retraction Watch, is definitely a leader to follow. I was fortunate enough to catch lunch with him, my adviser and a few colleagues last fall. John Rennie has also shared his ideas about why he thinks journalists should go above and beyond the embargo system to provide the public with diverse science news, not copy similar to press releases.

I plan to flesh out more of these ideas on this blog after I finish my paper.

But in the meantime, I want to hear from you. Which studies (if any) have you heard/read about because they’ve been retracted? Do you think the lack of coverage misleads public perception of science and how it works?

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About Me

Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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