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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/Flickr.com

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/Flickr.com

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

Kiernan, V. (2000). The Mars meteorite: a case study in controls on science dissemination of science news. Public Understanding of Science, 9, 15-41. doi: 10.1088/0963-6625/9/1/302

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

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About Me

Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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