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 the paper had been allowed to come out on its own, without advance fanfare from the publishing journal and Venter, whose company funded the research. My sense is that possibly only a few newspapers and wires may have jumped to cover it.

Scientific meetings are major offenders too. “News” stories based on presentations of phase I and II trial results—which often fail to be reproduced in larger groups of patients—are constantly being announced even before the research has been peer reviewed. That kind of “news” sometimes moves stock prices.

Although it seems counterintuitive, I believe this practice of ginning up media coverage ultimately works against the scientific enterprise. Bombarding the public with too much science news, most of it of questionable relevance, can only serve to deafen people’s ears to all that white noise.

Scientists love to blame the journalists for not doing a good enough job at filtering the information. I partly agree. That’s why I am glad to see sites like Healthnewsreview.org scrutinizing journalists’ coverage of science news. Not only is it a fascinating read, but the site’s analyses of good and bad stories are highly educational.

Still, the unavoidable reality of today’s newsrooms is that dedicated health and science departments are ceasing to exist. Newspapers have killed their science sections, and general assignment reporters who may have barely made it through biology in college are being asked to cover the latest stem cell story. This means, then, that it isn’t only up to the reporters to filter the information. The sources that produce it must do a better job as well.

It might come as a surprise to the academics, but next time they wonder why a study was hyped in the media they might want to look at their university’s own PR office. According to an interesting study, abstract press releases issued by universities and medical centers often promote studies with questionable relevance to human health and fail to acknowledge important limitations.

Let’s not forget also that many of these press releases not only raise the profile of a researcher and his institution; they can also bolster a scientist’s image as he prepares to start a company around a discovery.

The bottom line, as always, is that money talks. The endeavor of scientific research, noble as it may be, is nonetheless a business.

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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