Have you ever wondered why big science news (like today's announcement by Stanford stem cell researchers) tends to be published simultaneously by many major media outlets? It's not serendipity. It's due to a publishing restriction called an embargo. Embargoes are imposed by scientific or health journals - supposedly to allow reporters to prepare comprehensive, well-researched stories rather than rushing willy-nilly to publication just to beat their competitors.
The deal goes like this: In exchange for advance notice and access to the researchers, you agree not to publish anything before the embargo lifts. Presumably all your competitors do too, and everyone publishes simultaneously, like one big happy family (think of those annoying kid birthday party games where everyone 'wins'). That's what happened today with the work of Stanford stem cell researcher Marius Wernig, MD, and why I gave a big sigh of relief at 10 a.m. today.
You see, not everyone follows the rules. Sometimes newspapers or blog editors are just careless. Or, in the case of really big news, sometimes they choose to flaunt the rules, trading a hand slap by the journal (usually a withdrawal of access) for the bigger payoff of an exclusive story.
There's been an ongoing, often contentious discussion, as to who embargoes really serve. Many feel that the practice gives too much control to the journals over what should be a free-market system of information. Others worry that it discourages enterprise reporting--where a journalist susses out and really researches a cool story--by making scientists reluctant to talk to media.
I don't know if embargoes are right or wrong. Covering Health, a blog of the Association of Health Care Journalists, has an interesting addition today to an ongoing discussion of the purpose and efficacy of embargoes. It references a session on embargoes at the Science Online 2010 meeting I was so excited about last week and shows that embargoes are a thorny issue with many sides.
For now, I'm just relieved that the big stem cell announcement I've been working on for a week is finally out in the open and is getting some decent pickup from the media. They like me! They really like me! (Well, ok, the utter coolness of the research *may* have had something to do with it. Maybe.)
Previously Science Online 2010 and Stem cell breakthrough: Science over classical music
Via Covering Health
Photo via Rennett Stowe