Embracing the Embargo

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Science  30 Oct 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5390, pp. 877
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5390.877

The concept of an embargo on scientific information is often misunderstood and therefore maligned. Yet the embargo on scientific results imposed each week by Science and other major peer-reviewed journals is intended to benefit authors, readers, the press, and laypeople interested in our new findings. As a weekly international journal, our goals are to identify the highest quality papers with novel findings important to multiple disciplines, to ready them for broad dissemination with minimal delay, and to make these results available to the scientific community and the public through timely, responsible, balanced reporting. Our Information for Contributors (see www.sciencemag.org/misc/con-info.shtml) sets forth the principles that guide us in meeting these goals.

To satisfy our requirements for submission of original material, the main findings must not have been previously published or be under review in any form, including in the mass media or on the publicly accessible Internet. However, presentation to other scientists at scientific meetings is allowed. Once a paper is accepted, the authors agree to share materials, methods, and archival data and to transfer copyright for print and electronic media to Science. Authors also agree to treat their manuscripts as privileged communications not to be released to the press until the publication date—with very rare exceptions. Under the embargo, Science and other journals release advance copy to certified correspondents in the scientific press in return for their agreement to defer coverage until final publication.

Why do we impose this period of silence, if one of our goals is to get the information out as quickly as possible? Science imposes its embargo policy in part because we feel that the general presentation of results should coincide with release of data. The policy also provides a level playing field for all media to report on our original findings. One week before the publication date, the embargoed information is made available, and correspondents have 1 week to investigate any papers that catch their eye. During this week, they are encouraged to interview our authors and other authorities in the field to assess the importance of the results and to ascertain remaining uncertainties. When the embargo is lifted at 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on the Thursday before the Friday publication date, comment on the Science lineup of original research for that week is allowed.

Science holds the view that such organized dissemination of important information through the public press leads to better quality coverage and public scrutiny of the achievements of scientific research. The embargo period provides sufficient time for reporters to analyze and report on the often complex stories behind the data. Authors choose to publish in Science in part because of the scientific awareness its papers carry to the world, both through its large circulation and the media coverage it reaps. Media coverage is good for authors because it makes clear to the public, both in funding circles and in the local press, their most recent scientific achievements. Wide coverage of scientific discoveries is good for the public and the scientific community because it illustrates the intellectual and practical value of publicly funded investment in scientific research.

Science strictly enforces the embargo. Generally, very few embargo breaks occur, and when they do they are most often the result of premature press releases. When an embargo is broken, Science can make the articles available online to all readers within hours and thus limit any momentary reporting scoops. Conclusive evidence that a reporter has knowingly broken our embargo will result in his or her exclusion from future embargoed information. Authors who fail to keep their manuscripts privileged risk annulment of acceptance. We strive to maintain good relations with the press and our authors.

Science and other major journals aim to increase scientific understanding by adhering to an advance release embargo policy. We think our colleagues at the New England Journal of Medicine expressed our sentiments succinctly when they stated, “We are in the business of revealing, not suppressing information.”* Embrace the embargo—it is for your benefit.

  • * J. P. Kassirer, N. Eng. J. Med. 327, 1238 (1992).

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