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Franz Ingelfinger's Legacy Shaped Biology Publishing

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Science  30 Oct 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5390, pp. 861
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5390.861

Franz Ingelfinger, a revered figure in biomedical publishing, drew up some rules for authors in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in 1969, shortly after becoming the journal's editor-in-chief. His decree forbidding prior publication in other media sharpened NEJM's policies and created a legacy that's been invoked by numerous editors over the past 3 decades. Yet when he devised the rule, Ingelfinger acknowledged that it was not based on any exalted principle: It was basically a good business decision. Ingelfinger wanted to be sure that the articles he published were original and “newsworthy.”

Ingelfinger explained the origin of the rule in his 1977 Shattuck Lecture to the Massachusetts Medical Society in Boston. He was “jolted” to adopt a new policy, he said, when he saw the “essence” of a report due to appear in the NEJM pasted across the pages of Medical World News. “Imagine my dismay,” he continued, when “illustrations and tables practically identical to those submitted to the Journal” appeared in a competitive publication. “We had been scooped.”

Determined to prevent a recurrence, Ingelfinger ran an editorial on 18 September 1969 spelling out his decision: NEJM would accept no “material” that had been contributed previously to “any book, journal, or newspaper.” He made an explicit exception for scientific meetings, allowing speakers to publish abstracts of talks and engage in some contact with the press. “When a reporter notes what is said by a speaker at a public meeting,” Ingelfinger wrote, it is “difficult” to draw a line between reasonable and excessive press communication. His rule of thumb was that the scientist's paper might be rejected by NEJM if “the speaker makes illustrations available to the interviewer, or if the published interview covers practically all the principal points contained in a subsequent submitted manuscript.”

The Ingelfinger rule has been adjusted several times since 1969—for example, to allow the rapid release of data that might be important for public health and to permit scientists to share unpublished material with impunity in congressional hearings or other government proceedings. But the main points are still enforced by NEJM's editors, and they form the basis of similar rules applied by most other medical and biological journals.

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