The Embargo System in Science News Needs Some Peer Review

8/3/10

Ever wonder how it is that the day a big scientific paper is published, or a groundbreaking presentation is given at a meeting, all major media outlets seem to have the story right away? It doesn’t happen by chance. The massive coordination effort is known as the embargo system. It is one of the most well-oiled machines within the massive conveyor belt that moves discoveries from bench to bedside.

The system is supposed to level the playing field for journalists covering the highly complex topic of science. It works by allowing reporters advance access—usually 3 to 4 days—to the data in exchange for a promise not to publish until after a pre-arranged date and time. Thus, reporters are able to thoroughly report the piece and talk to sources without fear that a competitor will scoop them. This supposedly makes for better journalism.

I don’t disagree that this is helpful in some cases. For major medical stories, or scientific discoveries that may have a significant impact in some aspect of our lives, it makes sense to have several media outlets scrutinizing the information. Behind the scenes, this increases the pressure for a reporter to do a good job. If I know that when my story comes out so will a version from the New York Times and the Associated Press I will be much more eager to avoid looking like an idiot as I explain the study’s significance.

However, things have gotten a little out of control with the embargo system, and I’m not sure its benefits outweigh the drawbacks. For way too many examples of less-than-relevant science, the system has become a way to artificially create newsworthiness. A recent example that comes to mind was J. Craig Venter’s announcement of his team’s creation of the first synthetic cell. The news was released to reporters under embargo, along with notice of the date and time of a press conference organized by the journal Science. There, Dr. Venter proceeded to tout his research as a landmark with numerous future—emphasis on future—applications.

The event was orchestrated in a way that made it hard for news organizations to pass on it. While I respect the scientific achievement, I wonder what would have happened if … Next Page »

Sylvia Pagán Westphal is Xconomy's life sciences columnist. You can reach her at swestphal@xconomy.com or you can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sylviawestphal. Visit http://www.xconomy.com/author/swestphal/ for Sylvia's full bio and disclosures. Follow @

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