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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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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/Flickr.com

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/Flickr.com

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/Flickr.com

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 Churnalism.com

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:
10.1056/NEJM199406023302211

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

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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