Too Hot to Hold: Life on Mars and Cloned Sheep Couldn't Be Kept Under Wraps

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Science  30 Oct 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5390, pp. 862
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5390.862

Science embargoes—designed to keep research papers under wraps until they are released by a publisher—tend to break down if the news is really big. Word of a discovery may leak to someone who isn't part of the confidential news network. Or it may reach a reporter from an independent source. When that happens, the publisher loses control of the material. Other reporters declare an “embargo break” and demand that the information be released early. Generally, but not always, the publisher gives in.

This happened at Science, for example, in August 1996, just as it was about to publish a hot paper about a martian meteorite with what looked like traces of extraterrestrial life. The paper was held in tight secrecy during review. Lead author David S. McKay of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston had restricted circulation to a handful of colleagues. “Only four or five people knew about it” during the 6 months prior to publication, says NASA science official Ed Weiler. Weiler says he didn't even spill the news to his wife. Nevertheless, he concedes: “I'm surprised it stayed secret as long as it did.”

As the publication date (16 August) neared, the circle of insiders widened. NASA Administrator Dan Goldin briefed Vice President Al Gore and a group of White House staffers in late July. (Time magazine reported afterward that Dick Morris, a political adviser to the president who was later forced to resign in a sex scandal, learned in advance about the Mars news and told his girlfriend about it.)

Science and NASA had planned to hold a joint news conference just before the article was to appear in print, but they were forced to move more than a week early by a news item in the 5 August issue of Space News. Under the headline, “Meteorite Find Incites Speculation on Mars Life,” it mentioned the rock's correct name, gave its age, and reported that “NASA is expected to provide more details in mid-August, timed with release of a scientific paper. …” Leonard David, author of the note, says, “I had no idea that anything was embargoed,” because he doesn't get advance news packets and hadn't seen the paper. David explains that “I have a good network of people who do Mars research,” and he pieced together bits of information collected over a long period.

CBS TV noticed the Space News blurb. At this point, recalls Diane Dondershine, a spokesperson for Science and its publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science: “CBS news said, ‘We are going to report this very soon,’ and then [AAAS] started getting more and more calls from people as CBS was making the rounds,” asking for comment on the life-on-Mars hypothesis. Dondershine asked CBS to hold off airing the news, but by the afternoon of 6 August, as more and more calls came in, she says, “we decided to release it.” The embargo was lifted and experts were summoned—one from his tent in a remote area of Texas—to talk to reporters.

When an embargo begins to erode on a big story, as in the Mars case, reporters look for an excuse to ignore the rules. New York Times reporter Gina Kolata describes this process in her book, Clone, about the making of the sheep Dolly. (The book jacket identifies Kolata as the “reporter who broke the story” on Dolly.) Kolata explains that on 20 February 1997, she received an embargoed tip sheet from Nature describing the cloning of Dolly, forbidding public mention of the report until Nature's publication date, 27 February. A day later, Nature gave Kolata and hundreds of other reporters the full text of the paper on Dolly by Ian Wilmut of Scotland's Roslin Institute, under embargo.

At this point, Kolata writes, she and her editor “decided that news so important was unlikely to wait for the usual Nature embargo to end.” She decided to get “a major story ready to go,” then watch the news wires closely to see if anyone broke the embargo. “In journalism,” Kolata explains, “the rule is that once a newspaper, television show, or radio show reports on an embargoed story, it is fair game for everyone to break the embargo.” Thus, on 22 February, after the Times editors spotted a story on the cloning of Dolly by Robin McKie in The Observer of London, they decided to run Kolata's story the next day. McKie later said he had developed his own story without using Nature's information. Nature investigated and accepted his account. No one was punished.

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