Having not come from a science background, I admit to not knowing much (okay, anything) about embargos before coming to work here. I quickly learned the drill, though: Scientific journals set a designated time/date in which the media can run stories on a particular study - in an effort (in the words of my wise colleague Krista Conger) "to give media professionals enough time to prepare a thoughtful, well-researched story about the research without giving any media outlet a competitive advantage over another."
Things have changed in the decade-plus since I first learned about this system (some journals are now embargo-free), but embargos are still very much in use - and breaking them is serious business. So I took great interest in a recent Communication Breakdown Q&A on the topic with journalist/Embargo Watch founder Ivan Oransky, MD, who says he's been "obsessed with embargos" for years. In the Q&A, Oransky provides more background on the embargo system and discusses why he's in favor of changing it:
The Ingelfinger Rule, which I’m now convinced is the real problem with the embargo system, was a policy then-New England Journal of Medicine editor-in-chief Franz Ingelfinger came up with in 1969. He didn’t call it that at the time, and it has evolved since, but the basic idea was that some researchers were going straight to the media with their “breakthroughs,” bypassing peer review and causing a lot of confusion and false hope. So he decreed that NEJM wouldn’t consider any papers whose results had already been publicized, whether in the mass media or other journals.
It’s important to remember that history because the fact is that Ingelfinger had a legitimate concern, and came up with a reasonable way to address it. The problem in the time since then is that the Ingelfinger Rule has become a gag order. Scientists are deathly afraid of talking to reporters, because it might jeopardize their publication in a prestigious journal. That fear is actually out of proportion to policies at major journals. But until it changes, it makes it very difficult for journalists to tell the real stories of science – which focusing on the study of the week, as the Ingelfinger Rule, aided and abetted by embargoes, encourages...