Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Interview: @ivanoransky on life without press embargoes

(Editor's note: Physician and journalist Ivan Oransky and I often talk about the finer points of press embargoes for science journalists, since I used to manage same for the journal Science (where we had them) and the journals of the American Chemical Society (where I got rid of them, during my tenure). When Eurekalert was hacked recently, I saw his proposal to do a research project on embargoes using the hiatus as a control, and asked him to answer these questions. Oransky edits Embargo Watch and Retraction Watch, two of my favorite blogs; is Distinguished Writer In Residence at New York University’s Carter Journalism Institute; is the vice president of the Association of Health Care Journalists; and is the vice president and global editorial director of MedPage Today.)

While Eurekalert! was on hiatus due to a hacking, you proposed an analysis of how the disruption would affect coverage. Why? What was your inspiration?

In a 1991 paper, David Phillips and colleagues explored what happened to science coverage during a 1978 strike at the New York Times. Reporters and editors still produced a paper, but the strike meant that it was never distributed, nor read by anyone outside of the building. Their goal was to see whether coverage in The Times would have any effect on citations, specifically “whether publicity in the popular press truly amplifies the transmission of scientific findings to the medical community.”

It was an elegant natural experiment that took advantage of an unplanned event, and so I thought of it when the Eurekalert! hack happened. Here might be a chance, once and for all to see what effects embargoes have on coverage of science.

(Another note from Denise: Read the results to see the highly positive impact that news coverage has on a paper's citation rate--something that matters to scientists. It's an old but good study to share with researchers who ask, "What's in it for me?" when deciding whether to talk to reporters.)

What did you hope to learn or prove?

A lot of the discussion about embargoes, appropriately, has to do with whether they make coverage of science better or worse. Do the benefits -- advocates usually cite time to digest and report on a particular study -- outweigh the disadvantages, such as letting journals dictate priorities? Those discussions, however, take place largely in the absence of evidence.

While the study I proposed would have a number of caveats -- a relatively short duration, the fact that some big journals are not part of Eurekalert!, and the fact that Eurekalert! staffers worked to minimize the disruption of the hack by sending content by request -- it might give us a clue how reporters would behave if embargoes went away. Would they look for non-embargoed stories? Would coverage be more superficial because they scrambled to report on studies once they came out? Those and other questions seem important to answer.

Ivan Oransky
Reporters don't talk much in public about embargoes--they're a type of inside baseball, Embargo Watch being a notable example of the opposite. How did reporters react to your arguments against embargoes, pro and con?

I’ve been delighted by the very thoughtful and challenging discussions about my Embargo Watch posts and Vox piece. A sampling:

Embargoes do help science journalists report stories better, and they give us a modicum of control over our lives,” wrote veteran science journalist Maggie Fox, now of NBC News.

“Embargoes might seem like a necessary evil within the system of science news as we’re practicing it today,” wrote former Scientific American editor in chief John Rennie, “but I think that’s all the more reason for us to rethink our approach to it.”

“I think that science writers should learn to live without embargoes,” said New York Times and STAT columnist Carl Zimmer.

“I agree that journalists should avoid the embargo treadmill, but that’s different from suggesting that they should stop looking at the embargoed studies until after they are published,” wrote Forbes health editor Matthew Herper.

One of the themes that I was particularly happy to see emerge was that the Ingelfinger Rule was bad for science journalism. That rule was promulgated in the late 1960s by an editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine who wanted to make sure researchers weren’t making unsupported claims based on non-peer-reviewed findings. But it has come to have a chilling effect on scientists’ willingness to speak to reporters.

Did PIOs (public information officers) react? How?

They did. Broad PIO Tom Ulrich wrote: “Embargoes absolutely have their ups and downs, but I think that, at least when it comes to writing and (for PIOs, communicating) about new studies, there will (and should) always be one limiting time-based factor…the date & time a given study’s actually published and/or it’s findings and data are publicly available.”

And longtime PR pro Brian Reid warned in a guest post that when it comes to embargoes’ problems, the cure may be worse than the disease.

Make the case for getting rid of embargoes, if you haven't done so already.

As I argued in Vox, “embargoes allow journals, universities, nonprofits, and corporations to decide what’s important — and when. That should be up to journalists and, frankly, anyone who writes about science. Reporters, even with the best intentions, end up on the study-of-the-week treadmill, and they’re less creative because of the limitations of something called the Ingelfinger Rule, which scares researchers out of talking to them...Science, rather than appearing like a human enterprise, full of fits and starts in the never-ending search for knowledge, is expected to prove claims once a week, or even more frequently. And I think that’s bad for readers and viewers.”

Make the case for keeping them.

I think Brian Reid makes this case well: “To be sure, the boiler-room speedsters and the clickbaiters and the flacks and the crowdsourcing crowd all exist now (and, indeed, may represent a growing slice of the media pie). But what the embargo system does is ensure that when 5 p.m. rolls around, news consumers have the option to ignore those voices in favor of thoroughly reported pieces by experienced reporters who have extensive Rolodexes. Take away that high-quality coverage, and the attention doesn’t vanish. It just flows somewhere else. Probably somewhere worse.”

What's one thing that press offices can do to improve their use of embargoes that you would welcome?

I’ll do better than one thing. Here are 10: “If you must use embargoes, here’s how to do it.”

Should press offices use unexpected hiatuses to conduct research like this?

I’d be delighted if they did, and I’d welcome the opportunity to help with that kind of research, presuming the results could be made public. I do realize, however, that when it comes to embargoes, university press officers are largely at the mercy of journals, which probably limits how much of an effect they can have on their own.

What did I miss?

A lot of the objections to doing away with embargoes presume that the only options are what we have now, or a mad scramble to cover studies once they’re already out. But that’s only true because of the Ingelfinger Rule. If we did away with that -- and in some ways we’re already chipping away at it -- science journalism would have the chance to reflect the ebbs and flows of the way science really works, instead of relying on the awful “study of the week” paradigm.

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