There's no worldwide management system for embargoes (and I am not proposing one, because I have a business to run). But I can attest that embargoes -- created in the name of giving reporters a "level playing field" on which to research complex scientific research that then gets released all at the same time -- are managed, er, inconsistently.
So it's a level playing field that shifts shape, gets shorter or longer, and includes frequent rules changes and obstacle courses, often depending on which team is on the field, who's coaching and how big the ball is. An embargoed announcement may include many players, from the issuing journal or meeting to the universities or labs where the research occurred to the funding organizations, any journal with a competing bit of research, plus the reporters who have to agree to play along by the rules, and the ones who don't feel a need to play within those lines you're putting on the field. Any one of those players who doesn't hear/get/know/accept/understand the rules can put more bumps in that playing field than a squad of gophers.
If this sounds too much like inside baseball, I can tell you who's keeping the scorecard: The very good Embargo Watch blog is "keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage." The blog's author, Reuters Health executive editor Ivan Oransky, is cataloging the many and varied ways in which embargoes are issued, managed, broken and lifted. I asked Ivan to share insights specifically on areas where embargoes are managed inconsistently, with an eye to giving you a short list of embargo issues you may need to clean up on your end as communicators. Consider the blog a source of case studies you can use to compare, contrast and clean up your own embargoes:
- Embargoes for research presented at scientific conferences that limit coverage until time of presentation--even though abstracts containing key facts are freely available online. The European Society of Human Genetics just changed its policy on this score, and the American Diabetes Association is considering a change to its similar policy, both in the wake of Embargo Watch coverage. This gets at a common practice in scientific societies--sharing abstracts with member scientists in advance--that puts access for members in conflict with access for reporters, particularly as many societies distribute these packs of abstracts not only online but in CD or print form. If you don't know or don't control this aspect of abstract distribution, it's time to figure out how to make it consistent; embargoed material depends on a strict control of how the embargoed information is distributed, else it just doesn't work.
- Embargoes so short as to be meaningless. Ivan's got a startling collection of examples of short embargoes--so far, the record goes either to the New England Journal of Medicine for a 2-hour-26-minute embargo or to the University of Leeds for a journal paper already publicly available. (The latter case highlights the problems when the researchers' institution and the journal publisher are not coordinated.) Short embargoes are the result of attempts to hang on to the traditional embargo system, which worked better when the issuing organization could use the old print production cycle for a journal to offer reporters galley prints of forthcoming articles, about a week ahead. With advances in online publishing, sometimes the article's online before the press office even knows about it. When I was at the American Chemical Society--which publishes tens of thousands of journal articles a year--I gave up on embargoing journal articles for just that reason. You try covering a complex chemistry paper in less than three hours, with no notice. I'll watch. It can be done, but don't count on turtledove coos from the reporters you're calling. Communicators will say: Won't coverage suffer? Maybe. But too-short embargoes are more work and probably even less effective.
- Papers published online and available to any subscriber but embargoed for reporters. Two examples -- here and here -- suggest other areas where you may want to clean up your policies. If the paper's published online, even in a subscriber-only location, is it clearly marked as embargoed for reporters? And when reporters agree to your embargo policies (you do ask them to agree to one, right), are you making them aware of this? My own preference here would be to avoid embargoing that which is published for a large group of subscribers.
- The Groundhog Day embargo: You have your choice of two oddities in this category: an embargo that lifts every hour over the course of a whole day and two embargo times for one publication, in this case, The Lancet. Both distinguish between local times in different time zones--a fine concept, except when you consider the World Wide Web and international news organizations. This sounds like the seventh circle of Hell to me, speaking from the point of view of managing an embargo. I can attest that, even before the advent of the web, those of us managing major embargoes used the local time of the issuing organization, and let the time-zone chips fall where they may.
Disclosure: I've managed embargoes in the past for the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the journal Science; for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and for the American Chemical Society. I am not involved in embargo policies nor in media relations for any client, as these are not services I offer. My observations here speak only to my own experiences.
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