Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The fig-leaf embargo: As cover goes, it's nearly worthless

Ever been to the Vatican Museum in Rome? As you walk through hallways of the world's most expensive art collection, you may notice that most of the marble nudes of male figures are sporting fig leaves*. You know fig leaves: As cover goes, they're nearly worthless, more for show than anything else. We all know what's supposed to be under there, but you're making us wait to see it for reasons of your own. Sometimes there's a little extra drapery, but that's just another kind of fig leaf.

This week, fig leaves came to mind when I was reading about--of all things--embargoes on news about journal-published research studies. (And you thought science was boring.) Last week, the Embargo Watch blog reported on a new record for a short-term embargo on a news release. Reporters were given just 38 minutes of advance word on two articles coming out in the New England Journal of Medicine, both about human infection with bird flu, a hot topic that every news organization covers like a blanket. This beat a previous NEJM short embargo of 49 minutes, shaving 11 minutes off the total--at least as far as anyone's been keeping track.

Mind you, in 2010, those halcyon days of yore, Embargo Watch was eyeing askance a nine-hour embargo from The Lancet and a four-hour embargo from NEJM. So in three years, NEJM has gone from four hours to just over a half-hour, on occasion. One reason this causes an outcry: The supposed standard once was seven days, now down to four or five days at major journals. That's a time period determined to strike the balance between being reasonable enough to allow reporting on a complex scientific story, without being so long as to tempt anyone to break the embargo to get ahead of the pack. I'm thinking Embargo Watch needs a new watch--maybe a minute egg timer or a stopwatch--for embargoes, since it used to generously define a "short embargo" as "less than 24 hours."

Most of the journals with embargoes strongly believe that they enhance media coverage, something they'll rarely admit in public. But in fact, embargoes don't guarantee news coverage. The public reason for having an embargo is that convenience is being created for the researchers, communicators and journalists who are expected to organize themselves and their public statements around the embargo. Here, too, is a fiction. When embargoes get this short, the convenience factor disappears and is replaced by a fig leaf....a 38-minute one this week.

Many journals get along just fine without embargoes. That's been true for decades in the physics community, and new journals like eLife are launching without even trying them. So why should communicators care? This may seem like a rarified-air issue, one that affects just a handful of organizations publishing data. But companies, organizations, government agencies and PR agencies copy the practice--often badly--leading to more myths about embargoes, and that actually makes more useless work for everybody. This week's case was pretty straightforward: There was no chance that two papers on humans and avian flu would go unnoticed. So just what were those 38 minutes supposed to cover for those involved? If they were the fig leaf for appearing to be helpful, it might be time to drop that cover.

*The statues, originally anatomically correct, were altered in a "defacement campaign" conducted by the Church. Next time you're in the museum, I dare you not to look. You'll find the story in City Secrets: Rome.

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