- PLANT BIOTECHNOLOGY
Seed-Sterilizing 'Terminator Technology' Sows Discord
- Robert F. Service
Plant biotech researchers usually try to give plants a leg up on evolution, packing them with genes to fend off assaults from insects, extreme weather, and herbicides. But the latest innovation to emerge from plant gene labs does just the opposite: It ensures that these attributes won't be passed along to the next generation. Using a neat trick of genetic engineering, companies can now ensure that genetically modified plants produce sterile seeds—a feat that will keep farmers coming back for fresh seed year after year.
Companies say the innovation is needed to safeguard their investments in improved plant varieties, but an array of critics contends that it will further marginalize the world's poorest farmers and erode crop biodiversity. Last week the dispute intensified when a committee for the world's largest agricultural research organization—the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)—recommended that its 16 member institutes ban use of the technology in their crop-improvement projects. Although this move is largely symbolic—CGIAR is a nonprofit research outfit that freely gives away its technology—it dramatically raises the profile of the technology's critics. The full CGIAR was expected to adopt the statement this week at its annual meeting in Washington, D.C. And earlier this month, the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a vocal farmers' advocacy organization, launched an international campaign against the technology. RAFI is pressing countries around the world to disallow patents on the technique.
At the heart of this battle is U.S. patent 5,723,765. Issued last March to researchers at a little-known cotton seed company called Delta & Pine Land (D&PL) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the patent covers a technique called the “technology protection system” by its supporters and “terminator technology” by its critics. It involves transferring three genes along with their genetic on switches into the seeds of genetically improved plants. When the master gene of this trio is dormant, the seeds will grow into plants that will produce healthy seeds of their own. But when a company activates the gene before selling the seeds—by exposing them to the antibiotic tetracycline, for example—the seeds produce plants that generate a toxin in their own seeds that kills them.
D&PL's head of technology transfer, Harry Collins, says the technology is designed simply to protect agricultural companies' intellectual property. When farmers save some seeds from a genetically engineered variety for replanting, he says, they are appropriating proprietary technology. Collins says D&PL is currently pursuing the technology for genetically improved varieties of crops such as cotton and wheat and expects it to be on the market around 2005. But in a move that could lead to quicker and more widespread use of the technology, crop life sciences giant Monsanto made a bid in May to acquire D&PL. (The deal is still awaiting approval from regulators and stockholders.)
For seed companies, “it's a delightful profit-making platform,” says RAFI head Pat Roy Mooney. But Mooney and others argue that it could be bad news for poor farmers. They point out that subsistence farmers in developing countries, who can't afford industrialized agriculture, often buy small amounts of improved varieties and breed them with local varieties to bolster yields. That practice obviously wouldn't work with sterile plants. CGIAR officials also worry that pollen harboring seed- sterilizing genes could pollinate nearby crops, rendering their seed sterile as well. “That could have a big impact on the world's poorest small farmers” who already live on the margins, says Timothy Reeves, director-general of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, a CGIAR member institute based in Mexico.
But officials at D&PL and the USDA argue that such fears misconstrue the technology. Melvin Oliver, a plant physiologist at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Lubbock, Texas, who co-developed the seed-killing technique, says farmers can still store seeds of non-genetically engineered strains and use them to improve local varieties. They just can't do it with genetic improvements that companies have spent millions of dollars to produce. “The system is just to protect new technology,” says Oliver. Furthermore, he adds, the technique is currently designed for use with self-pollinating plants that would not spread their pollen and genes to nearby traditional varieties.
Martha Crouch, a seed geneticist and expert on traditional farming at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, says many farmers may have little choice but to adopt the new seeds, however. She points out that large landowners, crop buyers, and government programs often choose the seeds that small farmers have to plant. “Free choice is a nice idea, but it doesn't seem to operate in the real world,” she says. She adds that insects commonly spread pollen from self-pollinating crops to other plants, which could put at least a small fraction of a neighboring farmer's plants at risk of being sterilized.
Cary Fowler, a CGIAR delegate from the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome, Italy, says he is also concerned about the potential threat to crop biodiversity. If the technology reduces interbreeding with local varieties and eventually leads subsistence farmers to switch to genetically engineered crops, some traditional varieties may no longer be planted and will disappear. “You not only restrict the potential improvements, but you may wipe out the farmer's traditional varieties as well,” leaving them little to fall back on if disease strikes the engineered varieties, says Fowler. Adds Mooney: “1.4 billion people depend on saved seed for their food security. Companies have to be damned right for them to risk the lives of all those people.” Oliver counters, however, that the threat of losing crop biodiversity is inherent in the introduction of any improved crop. The answer, he says, is to increase support for international seed banks to store germ plasm.
At this point, both sides seem to agree on only one thing: that they don't see eye to eye. “Let's face it, there really are two sides to this,” says Collins. And both sides seem to be digging in for a long battle.
- FORENSIC SCIENCE
HIV Strain Analysis Debuts in Murder Trial
- Gretchen Vogel
A Louisiana doctor was found guilty last week of attempted murder for injecting a former lover with HIV-infected blood. It was an unusual case by any measure, but it was also the first time that a DNA analysis of HIV strains was used in a criminal court in the United States. Although the specifics of this case might be rare, the same kind of evidence could be used whenever the source of a fast-mutating virus is at issue—for example, in cases involving transmission of HIV, food poisoning, or even biological warfare. And expert witnesses on both sides have said that the case points to the need for an explicit set of rules governing the use of such evidence in the courts.
The Louisiana case began in 1995 when Janet Trahan Allen, a nurse in Lafayette, accused Richard J. Schmidt, a local gastroenterologist, of deliberately infecting her with HIV and hepatitis C. She claimed that after she had threatened to break off her decade-long affair with Schmidt, he infected her with tainted blood in place of one of her regular vitamin injections. The blood, the state argued in court, came from two of Schmidt's patients, one of whom had hepatitis C and the other of whom had HIV.
As part of its case, the prosecution arranged for an analysis of the HIV strains in blood samples from Schmidt's HIV-positive patient and from Allen. The analysis was performed by Michael Metzker, at the time a graduate student in the lab of molecular biologist Richard Gibbs of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Metzker compared the gene sequences of the strains to see how closely related they were, using a technique called phylogenetic analysis. He reported that the strains from the two samples were more closely related to each other than to a set of controls from other HIV-positive patients in the Lafayette area.
Schmidt's lawyers fought to keep the DNA evidence out of the trial (Science, 14 March 1997, p. 1559). They argued that the laboratory work had been sloppy, noting that Metzker admitted that two of the control samples had been contaminated with a laboratory strain of HIV. Defense lawyers also said that the analysis was meaningless without a careful epidemiological study of other possible routes of infection. But the Louisiana 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld District Judge Durwood Conque's ruling that the prosecution could use the analysis to support its case.
At the trial last week, molecular biologist David Hillis of the University of Texas, Austin, testified for the prosecution that separate laboratories had redone the analysis on new blood samples and had found similar results. He says he told the jury that although “there's no way in these analyses to absolutely prove a direct transmission from one [person] to another,” the “viruses from the two individuals were as closely related as viruses from two people could be.” In addition, he said, the strains infecting Allen were a subset of those infecting Schmidt's patient, supporting the case for transmission from the patient to Allen. The prosecution also presented evidence that the seven men with whom Allen had had sex between 1984 and 1995—including Schmidt—had all tested negative for HIV.
Defense witness Bette Korber, head of the national HIV database at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, told the jury, however, that the similarity between the strains could have been mere chance. She, with molecular virologists James Mullins and Gerald Learn of the University of Washington, Seattle, had searched a database of HIV strains in Louisiana and had turned up two pairs of infections that appeared to be more closely related than the patient's and Allen's, she said. Those infections, she testified, had no known or probable links to each other.
Korber says she believes the jury understood the limitations of the analysis. “I suspect in this case that the DNA data were interpreted in accord with the way I view it—as inconclusive,” she says. Hillis, too, thinks the jurors were persuaded by other evidence, including testimony about a hidden record book that noted withdrawal of blood from the HIV-infected patient and Schmidt's previous threats to Allen and others. “The rest of the case was so strong,” he says. “The scientific evidence had little bearing on the outcome of the case.”
But both sides say similar cases are bound to arise, and guidelines like those developed by the National Academy of Sciences in 1996 to govern DNA fingerprinting are needed. Korber says such requirements should include an epidemiological investigation of risk factors, blind testing of samples, and clear records of the chain of custody of samples. She says juries should also be told explicitly that phylogenetic analysis cannot prove direct transmission.
Schmidt, who will be sentenced in the next month, faces 15 to 50 years in prison. His lawyers have said they plan to appeal.
- ACADEMIC PUBLISHING
New Journals Launched to Fight Rising Prices
- David Malakoff
A librarian-led rebellion against spiraling prices for commercial scientific journals has gained some new allies. Last week, Britain's Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) announced plans to launch a low-cost journal that will compete directly with a more expensive commercial publication, and a prominent ecologist has taken the unusual step of defecting from a successful title he founded a decade ago to start a lower cost competitor.
Both ventures are backed by the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), a Washington, D.C.-based organization that is encouraging scientific societies and rebel publishers to create journals that compete head to head with commercial titles. “We are focusing the spotlight on a lack of competition that we believe is narrowing the dissemination of knowledge,” says Richard Johnson, enterprise director for the coalition. Although the new alliances are unlikely to ease the budgetary pressures on libraries anytime soon, industry observers say they suggest that a decade-old war between major academic libraries and a handful of large commercial publishers is heating up.
Soaring journal prices are not a new problem for librarians. Since 1986, median prices for scholarly journals issued by both commercial and nonprofit publishers have risen at least 169%, or more than three times the rate of inflation, according to the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) in Washington, D.C., which represents 121 collections in the United States and Canada. Unable to keep pace, ARL libraries have cut thousands of subscriptions and are now spending 124% more to stock 7% fewer titles.
In particular, librarians say that an increasing share of their budgets goes for widely cited, “must-have” scientific and technical journals published by a few dominant commercial publishers, such as Europe-based Reed Elsevier and Netherlands-based Wolters Kluwer. Each journal typically has less than 500 subscribers and can cost up to $15,000 annually, notes Ken Frazier, an ARL official who directs the University of Wisconsin, Madison, library system. “To say that commercial research journals are expensive is like saying tornadoes are windy,” he jokes. Publishers, however, say their prices are justified by their quality and the number of pages they run.
ARL officials believe the academic market could benefit from a little competition—and last year they organized SPARC to provide it. The idea is that SPARC's 114 members will agree in advance to buy the new, cost-conscious journals endorsed by the group. That solidarity is intended to provide publishers with an immediate cash flow that might carry a new title through its perilous early years. In its first deal last July, SPARC teamed with the American Chemical Society, which agreed to develop three new journals over 3 years. The first, Organic Letters, will debut in mid-1999 as a $2300 alternative to Elsevier's $8602 Tetrahedron Letters (Science, 3 July, p. 21).
Now, with the two new deals, SPARC has expanded its reach. Last week, it joined the RSC and more than 100 European libraries to promote a new $353-per-year electronic chemistry journal called PhysChemComm. This time, the target is Elsevier's Chemical Physics Letters, which costs $8368. By publishing the journal, “the RSC sees itself reclaiming the moral high ground,” says Mike Hannant, the group's electronic publisher. Elsevier officials, however, have charged that SPARC is promoting the proliferation of journals in an already overcrowded marketplace—and that only time will tell if societies can hold down prices.
The second deal, still pending, is more controversial. SPARC has agreed to promote a new print journal published by Michael Rosenzweig, a prominent ecologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Rosenzweig and his 34-member editorial board have abandoned a successful journal they began in 1987—Evolutionary Ecology—to start a self-published competitor, Evolutionary Ecology Research. His departure late last year, Rosenzweig says, was primarily because Kluwer—which obtained the journal from Thomson Corp. in a merger last year—planned to raise Evolutionary Ecology's library price from $464 to $777 and, essentially, to end cheaper individual subscriptions. “We wanted wider dissemination; we're tired of publishing papers that our colleagues and libraries can't afford,” says Rosenzweig, who plans to publish the first issue in January.
But publishing experts say the new for-profit journal, which will cost libraries no more than $305 and individuals as little as $33 annually, faces substantial obstacles. First, knowledgeable sources say, Rosenzweig may have to strike a compromise with Kluwer on the question of trademark infringement, that is, whether the new journal is attempting to benefit from the “good will” generated by the older journal. He also will face a marketplace and academic culture that is notoriously slow to embrace new entries.
Even with SPARC's support, “it's a really bad time to be starting a journal—some libraries simply aren't subscribing to any new titles,” says Janet Fisher of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology University Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And Kluwer executive Ad Plazier predicts that subscribers could be left hanging by Rosenzweig's venture. “When the price is too low, you can't guarantee that the journal will be available in the future,” he says.
But Rosenzweig—who describes himself as “an ant taking on Goliath”—is cautiously optimistic. One positive sign, he says, is that authors appear to be flocking to the new journal, which he and his wife are running out of their home. Indeed, says ecologist Peter Smallwood of the University of Richmond in Virginia, a former student of Rosenzweig's, “it is the articles that make the journal, and it looks like [he] is getting the articles that would have gone to Kluwer.” Kluwer editor Ursula Hertling, however, says the original journal, though temporarily without an editor, has manuscripts and “will continue as usual.”
Librarians, however, shouldn't look for Kluwer to match prices with its new competitor: Plazier says there are no plans to reduce the title's price. But SPARC's Johnson is willing to be patient. “I have high hopes,” he says, “that this will be more than just a protest movement.”
Mutual Nonaggression Pact May Aid Ant Spread
- Evelyn Strauss*
Argentine ants have become common pests worldwide, raiding kitchens from San Francisco to Johannesburg to cart away crumbs of chocolate cake and soetkoekies. These tiny invaders are more than a nuisance: They often upset ecosystems and reduce biodiversity by wiping out indigenous ants. “Argentine ants are one of the two or three ant species that are a huge problem in many parts of the world,” says Daniel Simberloff, who studies biological invasions at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. One secret to their success, a group led by Ted Case of the University of California (UC), San Diego, suggests on page 949, is intraspecies harmony.
Most ants defend their territory against other colonies, particularly those of the same species. But Argentine ants far from their South American home generally don't fight each other, although they still attack other ants. Now Case and his colleagues have obtained the first direct evidence for something that ant ecologists have suspected for some time: The Argentine invaders flourish because they lose some of their aggressiveness against their own kind. In lab studies, the researchers have shown that pairs of Argentine ant colonies that don't fight reach higher population numbers than pairs of warring colonies, possibly because they waste less time and energy. “This helps explain how the Argentine ant can outcompete other insects in its introduced range,” says Philip Ward, an ant biologist at UC Davis.
Although most Argentine ants in Southern California don't attack each other, Andrew Suarez, a graduate student in Case's lab, found some that did. Taking advantage of this natural variation, the group reared pairs of colonies, both containing either the aggressive or nonaggressive ants, in a setup that gave the two colonies access via plastic tubing to a shared area that contained food.
The warlike colonies started battling immediately, and many ants died, says postdoc David Holway, a community ecologist in Case's lab. After a few weeks, workers stationed themselves at the openings to the plastic tubes as if to prevent incursions from members of the other nest. In contrast, workers from the nonaggressive pairs “commonly walked [through the shared area] in a file from one nest to the other,” says Holway. Furthermore, in the peaceful setting, the ants foraged for food more actively.
After 70 days, the researchers counted worker ants, eggs, larvae, and pupae in the colonies. The nonaggressive colony pairs had significantly larger numbers than the warring colony pairs. The worker populations, for example, differed by almost 100%. Underscoring the costs of aggressive behavior is a separate study by Case's group, to be published in an upcoming issue of Biological Invasions. The researchers found that in the Argentine ant's native range, where the insects don't take over ant communities, they behave more like other ants and fight among themselves. “These results suggest that intraspecific aggression, which is common in their native range, plays a role in limiting colony size, reducing competitive ability, and allowing for coexistence with other species,” says Holway.
The researchers don't yet know why the peripatetic Argentine ants lose their aggressiveness, although decreased genetic variability may be involved. In the Biological Invasions study, graduate student Neil Tsutsui showed that Argentine ants in California display less genetic diversity than they do in their native ranges.
The researchers point out that harmony probably isn't the only factor helping the wanderers thrive. The ants may also benefit from the absence of some natural enemies in their foreign homes and, in some locales, from meeker competition by indigenous ants. In Australia, for example, where the Argentine ants seem to fare worse than in California, “the ant competitors are arguably less wimpy than in California,” says Ward.
The new findings may spark ideas about how to control Argentine ant invasions. “If Argentine ants could be made to fight more often in the introduced range, their population sizes would probably go down,” says Holway. Reintroducing genetic diversity, he suggests, might generate increased aggressiveness, although it could enhance the adaptability of the ants in other ways. Furthermore, Holway cautions, no one has shown that fighting in Argentine ants has a genetic basis. For now, at least, Argentine ants in kitchens around the world will continue to enjoy their peace dividend.
- ITALIAN RESEARCH
Reforms at Final Stage Under New Minister
- Susan Biggin*
Trieste—Italian government ministers can expect to see few major projects through to completion in the country's turbulent political system, but Luigi Berlinguer came close. Last week, Berlinguer was replaced as Italy's research minister just as a parliamentary committee began its final vetting of his grand reform of Italian science. Berlinguer must curse his luck that the unusually long-lasting government of Romano Prodi—which was replaced last week by an administration headed by Massimo D'Alema—couldn't hang on a few more weeks.
The reforms are now in the hands of D'Alema's choice to succeed Berlinguer as science minister: Ortensio Zecchino, an associate professor in the history of criminal law at the University of Naples and a senator since 1987. Major changes to Berlinguer's program are not expected at this late stage, especially as D'Alema has put much emphasis on continuity.
Berlinguer got his opportunity to shake up Italian science early last year when the then-minister for public affairs, Franco Bassanini, set up a streamlined process for reforming public administration: Ministers could propose reforms by decree, which would be approved by a parliamentary committee, now known as the “Bassanini” committee, rather than the full Parliament. Berlinguer issued decrees last summer for reform of the Italian Space Agency, the alternative energy agency ENEA, and the national research council (CNR), a body with 320 research institutes and centers. All are now being considered by the Bassanini committee, but the proposed changes for the CNR are the most radical and have drawn the most attention.
Few dispute that CNR is ripe for reform. CNR's committee of chairs of the 15 national subject committees has become a forum for an annual scramble to grab as much as possible for each member's own scientific area or even research group. CNR is also notoriously top-heavy with management. CNR headquarters in Rome employs some 1000 staff members, while few of its 190 independent institutes have over 30 researchers. The average number of researchers at its university-based centers is only 4.6.
In Berlinguer's new model, CNR would no longer fund research in the universities outside its own centers or assist in defining government research policy; instead it will focus on its own research efforts, at CNR labs or through collaborations with academia. CNR institutes would also be rationalized into “macroinstitutes,” and only those potentially of international stature would survive. The decree promises cuts of up to two-thirds in both the number of CNR labs and in the headquarters staff.
The national subject committees would also be scrapped. The decree only provides for a president, auditors, and an executive committee. Initially, this committee alone would decide on CNR's future—including the make-up of new funding committees, mechanisms for review, and collaboration—and five of its seven members need not have any scientific experience. The CNR would have a new scientific committee, but its role would be limited to consultation and support.
The proposed reforms have angered CNR researchers and lab directors because they would diminish CNR's role and reduce its autonomy. “The CNR could become just a tool for the Ministry, under tight political control, no longer the expression of and meeting point for the Italian scientific community,” says Paolo Locatelli, a member of the CNR chemistry committee. CNR's College of Directors, which represents all the university-based centers, also strongly objects to the composition of the executive committee. “All the power is concentrated at the top,” complains chemist Mario Mammi, president of the college. “It's like the Russian Academy of Sciences.” The Plenary Assembly of the subject committees presented a motion to the research ministry in mid-September suggesting a scientific committee that is not just advisory but is a statutory part of the CNR, well represented on the executive committee, and elected or nominated by the scientific community.
Last week the Bassanini committee began working its way through this and some 60 other representations by CNR researchers, directors, and unions. It seemed sympathetic to several of the concerns voiced by CNR researchers. During the first day's debate, Senator Giancarlo Tapparo, a committee member, said the management of the new CNR could lack scientific direction and risk becoming a “business.” He backed the suggestions from CNR staff for the scientific committee to have a more prominent role. Berlinguer has left behind a rich legacy of debate for the weeks to come.
- AGING RESEARCH
Single Gene Controls Fruit Fly Life-Span
- Elizabeth Pennisi
According to the Bible, Methuselah lived 969 years. Now, he has another claim on immortality: Caltech geneticists have named a newly discovered fruit fly gene in his honor. The reason: As Yi-Jyun Lin, Laurent Seroude, and Seymour Benzer of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena report on page 943, fruit flies with a mutated methuselah gene live up to 35% longer than normal fruit flies.
This is not the first gene found to affect an organism's life-span. Researchers had previously identified a half-dozen in the worm Caenorhabditis elegans. In some respects, C. elegans's life history can be very different from those of many other animals because it can enter a dormant “dauer” stage, which enables the worm to survive long periods of adverse conditions. Some people had thought that C. elegans might be a special case and that aging in other species is more likely to result from the haphazard buildup of damaging mutations in individual cells. “Now,” says Cynthia Kenyon, a molecular geneticist at the University of California, San Francisco, “it's inescapable that aging is regulated deliberately by genes.” And she adds, because “it happens in both worms and fruit flies, you have to be crazy to think it won't happen in vertebrates.”
The Caltech team's discovery also bolsters the idea that molecular stresses such as tissue-damaging free radicals contribute to aging, because the mutant methuselah gene in the long-lived flies also makes them able to withstand higher levels of stress. “It's an extended life-span gene that really fits with the previous work,” comments Michael Rose, a population geneticist at the University of California, Irvine.
To track down aging-related genes, Lin and his colleagues generated scores of mutant fruit fly strains by genetically unleashing one of the insect's transposable elements, a stretch of DNA that can jump around the genome, causing mutations wherever it happens to interrupt a gene. Then he tested how long the resulting mutant offspring lived and also how well they survived certain stressful conditions.
One mutant yielded young that lived more than 100 days instead of the usual 60 to 80. The flies were also better able to resist stress. They lasted 50% longer than wild-type flies when deprived of food. They tolerated heat better, surviving about 18 hours rather than the usual 12 at 36°C—a temperature that can cause cell proteins to break down. And they were more resistant to paraquat, a herbicide that can damage cells by generating oxygen free radicals. That suggests, Benzer explains, that “if you can resist stresses or better repair damage, then you can increase life-span.”
Still unclear is how the methuselah gene mutation makes flies more stress-resistant, but the protein it makes may be part of a signaling pathway that controls how well cells resist or repair these stresses. The amino acid sequence of the protein suggests that it is a member of a large family of membrane-bound molecules called G protein-coupled receptors. These receptors typically receive a variety of molecular signals at the cell surface, including neurotransmitters, and then relay those signals into the cell. What signal the methuselah protein responds to is unknown, however, for the part of the molecule that would receive it is unlike any in the known G protein-coupled receptors. “It's completely novel,” says Benzer.
If the methuselah protein is part of a signaling pathway, though, its situation would be similar, but not identical, to that of the protein produced by one of the worm's longevity genes, daf-2 (Science, 15 August 1997, pp. 897 and 942). The daf-2 gene is also part of a signaling pathway that influences how well cells age and cope with stress. In the 16 October issue of Cell, Kenyon's team reports that the activity of DAF-2 protein, an insulin receptor, likely leads to the release of a hormonelike signal that coordinates aging throughout the nematode. The researchers found that even when a mutated DAF-2 is inactive in just some of the nematode's cells, all tissues enter into the dauer phase. “It's a way of ensuring all cells do the same thing,” Kenyon explains.
It's unlikely that the methuselah protein responds to insulin, and so researchers still have a lot to do to figure out just what triggers the presumed receptor, as well as the precise outcome of its activity. But Kenyon and others who do research on aging are pleased to have the gene to work on. “Now,” she says, “we have another experimental system to investigate” for clues to what sets the allotted span in fruit flies and ultimately in other organisms.
- FOOD SAFETY
U.K. Government Tries to Reassure Wary Public
- Nigel Williams
The British Parliament returned last week from a summer break during which fears about the safety of genetically modified crops were never far from the headlines. The government promptly moved to tighten controls on the introduction of such crops in an effort to calm public concerns. The environment and agriculture departments proposed regulations to slowly phase in and monitor the planting of genetically modified crops and established a new committee to scrutinize the biotechnology industry. But the calming effect of these moves was partly offset by a decision to delay plans for a new independent food standards agency, which would monitor genetically modified foods as well as food hygiene and safety.
Genetically modified crops are a hot political potato across Europe (Science, 7 August, p. 768). Several countries, including Austria and Luxembourg, plan to ban them altogether. Britain is not planning to go that far, but Environment Minister Michael Meacher announced that no commercial planting of genetically modified crops will be allowed before the fall of 1999, and those that contain insect-resistance genes cannot be planted for at least 3 years. The first plantings, he says, will be strictly limited and monitored for ecological effects along with comparable plantings of conventional crops. Roger Turner, director of the British Society of Plant Breeders, welcomes the government's plans. He says his group “had argued all along the merits of a policy which allowed the carefully managed and monitored commercial introduction of [genetically modified] crops.”
Meanwhile, former Agriculture Minister Jack Cunningham, now responsible for the Cabinet Office, announced the setting up of a new high-level committee on biotechnology and genetic modification. Robert May, the government's chief scientific adviser, who will attend the committee, says its aim is to coordinate policy to meet the interests of different departments. “We need to determine, across the range of interests, what countryside we want for the future,” he says.
Ecologist Brian Johnson, an adviser to the conservation body English Nature, welcomes the government's decision to slow the commercial introduction of genetically modified crops. He says he is particularly concerned that “the use of genetically modified herbicide- and insect-resistant crops could greatly reduce weeds and insects on farmland, which might in turn threaten the survival of several species of farmland birds.” But Doug Parr, Greenpeace's campaign director on genetically modified crops, wants a complete ban: “The government has been driven to respond to wide public antipathy on genetically modified organisms, but the biotechnology industry is still dictating the terms,” he claims. Cunningham told a meeting last week of the Soil Association, which certifies organic farmers, that “there is no way in which the government can make the U.K. a GM-free zone.”
The regulation of genetically modified crops was expected to be one of the responsibilities of the new independent food standards agency, promised by the Labour Party before it won power last year and outlined in a white paper in January (Science, 23 January, p. 472). But last week's announcements coincided with news that the government will delay establishing the new agency, leading to speculation that it will be shelved permanently. Despite the apparent stalling, Cunningham insists the agency will eventually go ahead.
Many see the agency as crucial to restoring confidence in the food industry following a series of food safety crises in recent years, including mad cow disease, salmonella-contaminated poultry, and outbreaks of Escherichia coli O157:H7. “I'm very concerned about any delay in establishing the new agency,” says bacteriologist Hugh Pennington of the University of Aberdeen, who chaired the inquiry into a fatal E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in Scotland last year that killed 20 people. “The agency will make a significant difference in terms of research and advice,” he says; any plans to scrap it would be “disastrous.”
Researchers fear that the food industry has pressured the government into delaying the agency because of concerns that its research agenda would have an anti-industry bias. Publicly, however, many industry groups welcome plans for the new agency as a means of promoting public confidence. The apparent delay may be the result of a dispute about whether taxpayers or industry should stump up the initial $40 million budget.
Panel Pulls Back Report After NIH Critique
- Eliot Marshall
A last-minute fax from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) last week has apparently sent the president's National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) scrambling to revise some of its recommendations on new research guidelines.
The guidelines, in the works for 14 months, are intended to tighten up rules on patient consent to ensure that subjects with mental disorders are capable of understanding the research projects they agree to join. A draft of the new standards would ask investigators and research institutions to accept the burden of assuring that patients are competent to give their consent. If the research involves greater than minimal risk, the guidelines would also recommend that independent professionals be used to evaluate the decision-making capacity of patients who offer to take part in research. There are 20 recommendations in all.
NBAC executive director Eric Meslin says he had expected the panel to “finalize” the recommendations at its 20 October meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, and was “surprised” when that didn't happen. But Meslin insists that the delay was not triggered by NIH's eight-page letter, faxed the previous afternoon, which claims that these new guidelines could bring some kinds of research to a grinding halt. NBAC's chair, Harold Shapiro, president of Princeton University, announced that NBAC will wait until its next meeting, on 17 to 18 November in Miami, to make a final decision on its report.
NIH's criticism, signed by associate director for policy Lana Skirboll, says that “many in the NIH community, and the research community more broadly, continue to be troubled” by aspects of the draft NBAC report. The letter says that NBAC should avoid focusing only on mental health and instead consider all brain disorders that might impair decision-making. This approach, Skirboll suggests, would require that the commission obtain advice from a broader group of experts than it has consulted thus far.
Skirboll also takes issue with the recommendation that independent professionals should judge whether patients are competent to take part in research. This may be “impossible to implement” without a better understanding of how to judge competence, Skirboll notes. In addition, she finds “very troubling” a suggestion that some patients might be permanently excluded from studies simply because they were judged incompetent in the past. Finally, Skirboll suggests that NBAC advocate the creation of a new category of research that would require only a modest amount of regulatory review—a category to include PET and MRI scans, which often do not offer any direct benefit to the subject. The letter included a four-page list of examples of research that “would be impeded or halted by NBAC's recommendations.”
Meslin says that the fax is only the latest in a string of interactions with NIH staffers, including a private meeting earlier this fall between NIH director Harold Varmus and Shapiro. “The commission is trying to go out of its way to consider all views,” says Meslin. “We're trying to be creative at the last hour.” NBAC is completely “independent,” he added, and has not been put off its pace by criticism of its draft, which was issued in July and revised on 19 October (www.bioethics.gov/briefings/oct98/oct20.pdf). Neither Varmus nor Shapiro could be reached for comment on the interaction between NIH and the commission.
Internal NBAC discussions are now focusing mainly on refinements in recommendations 8 through 12, which would establish new restrictions on admitting people with mental disorders into research studies. NBAC members also are debating a proposal that would ask the government to create a special committee that could review projects and grant regulatory waivers for research “of exceptional importance.”
Despite the issues raised by the NIH fax, observers are betting that NBAC will adopt a report at the November meeting. NBAC is under “a lot of pressure” to move quickly, according to one policy analyst, because its last publication, on the ethics of cloning, appeared in June 1997.
- HUMAN GENETICS
Opponents Criticize Iceland's Database
- Martin Enserink*
A bold plan to establish a database containing the medical records of the entire population of Iceland has generated a furious controversy in the isolated and sparsely populated island itself—but it has caused hardly a ripple beyond Iceland's shores. No longer. Geneticists, bioethicists, and privacy experts from Europe and the United States are rallying against the plan and are urging Iceland's parliament to think twice before approving a bill that would make it possible. They claim that the bill would permit privacy violations that would be allowed almost nowhere else in the world—and may even infringe on Icelanders' human rights.
The criticism comes at a time when Althingi, the Icelandic parliament, is preparing to vote on a third version of the Health Database Bill. A first version was sent to parliament in March but withdrawn just weeks later after a storm of protest from Icelandic doctors, scientists, and patients' groups. A second, somewhat qualified draft was sent out for comment to dozens of organizations in late July (Science, 14 August, p. 890). The final version, put before Althingi on 9 October, is now under scrutiny by the Health Committee, after a first round of plenary debate.
Under the bill, health records of all Icelanders would be put in a central database. One company, deCODE Genetics in Reykjavik, founded by former Harvard geneticist Kari Stefansson, would be given a 12-year license to operate the database and sell access to third parties. Combined with biological samples and Iceland's detailed genealogical records, the database could be a valuable tool in tracing new disease-causing genetic mutations—a hunt that the Icelandic population is ideally suited for because of its unusual genetic homogeneity.
But even after the most recent refinements, critics still maintain that the bill is unacceptable. They have focused in particular on provisions that would permit people's medical data to be used for research without their informed, written consent. They also argue that safeguards to protect patients' privacy are inadequate and that it is unfair to grant one company use of the data while denying it to outside researchers whose studies might harm that company's commercial interests. Critics in Iceland are now being joined by colleagues from abroad, who Stefansson claims were misled by opponents who “spread misinformation about the bill all over the place.”
Geneticist Mary-Claire King of the University of Washington, Seattle, together with Henry Greely, a specialist in genetics and the law from Stanford University, recently wrote a letter to the Icelandic prime minister and the ministers of justice, health, and education, urging them to reconsider the plan. Although the idea of a database itself is “positive and exciting,” King and Greely write, the current proposal is “quite troubling” in its “treatment of individuals, of the entire Icelandic community, and of science.” Richard Lewontin, a geneticist at Harvard University, in a letter published in an Icelandic newspaper, objects to the bill granting exclusivity. Lewontin even says a scientific boycott of Iceland may be called for, “but only provided our Icelandic colleagues agree.”
Some of the fiercest criticism, however, comes from Europe. At the request of the Icelandic Medical Association (IMA), computer safety expert Ross Anderson of the University of Cambridge studied the privacy provisions in the proposed new law. He concluded that simply stripping names, addresses, and birth dates from the data is not sufficient: In a country of less than 300,000 people, just a few pieces of data will often reveal a person's identity. The plan would therefore “cause serious conflict” with the ethical principle that identifiable health data must be kept secret unless the patient agrees, Anderson says. Moreover, after discussing deCODE's plans with company officials in Reykjavik, Anderson concludes that the company's “lack of competence at computer security is quite evident.” He therefore advised the IMA to oppose the bill. Stefansson dismisses Anderson's criticism as the work of “a hired gun.” The IMA, however, “shares Anderson's opinion until proven otherwise,” says IMA chair Gudmundur Bjornsson.
Criticism has also come from legal experts. Sixteen of Europe's national Data Protection Commissioners—who oversee data-privacy laws—discussed the case in September during a meeting in Spain. They have urged Iceland's minister of justice to reconsider the plan because it may violate several European treaties, most notably the European Convention on Human Rights—a suggestion Stefansson calls “incredibly outrageous.” If the bill becomes law, warns Dutch Data Protection Commissioner Peter Hustinx, Iceland may well risk a conviction by the European Court in Strasbourg.
Within Iceland, meanwhile, the “battle is getting harder,” says geneticist Jorunn Eyfjord of the Icelandic Cancer Society. Recently, the IMA has clashed with Prime Minister David Oddsson and deCODE on several occasions. “At the moment, the atmosphere is spoiled,” says Bjornsson. “They have tried to make us look unserious and untrustworthy. … But we will have to find a way out of the trenches.”
Indeed, many predict a resounding victory for the bill when votes are cast in Althingi next month. Only two members of the two governing center-right parties have declared themselves opposed to the plan so far. But with so much animosity surrounding the venture, implementing the database may be difficult, even if the bill is passed. After all, it is Icelandic doctors who will have to enter their patients' data into the computers. To Bjornsson, a boycott of the data collection, advised by Anderson in his report, is too serious a step. “We can't support breaking the law,” he says; “that would be foolish. But it would put us in a difficult position. … We do have basic ethical principles that we won't give up.”
Good, Bad, or 'Necessary Evil'?
This special focus looks at the role of the embargo system in communicating scientific results to the public and to other scientists. Meetings and the special case of astronomy bring out some of the strains inherent in the system.
An arrangement aimed at keeping scientific findings out of the media until they are published by a journal draws mixed reviews; it is under pressure from Web-based publishing, and most physics publishers have already abandoned it
Every Wednesday or Thursday, more than 1400 reporters around the world get a sneak preview of the research articles that will appear in Nature a week later. The journal sends out faxes and e-mails highlighting the most newsworthy stories, and reporters can order the full text of any article. Two days later, more than 1200 journalists get similar advance notice of articles to be published in Science the following week. FedEx or priority mail brings early copies of medical journals like The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Reporters' e-mail inboxes and fax machines, meanwhile, fill up with announcements from other journals, universities, and institutes promoting new scientific findings. Most of this information carries a prominent warning: EMBARGOED. Public use of the information is forbidden until a specified date and hour to coincide with a journal's publication date.
What is most remarkable about this vast private traffic in science news is that it almost never leaks prematurely to the public. Hundreds of news-hungry reporters sit on the information, as they are bidden by journal publishers, until the designated release time. Welcome to the embargo system—a gentlemen's agreement between science journals and reporters designed to manage the flow of new scientific results to the public. The embargo system is the final stage of a process in which journals impose vows of secrecy not only on journalists but on the authors of the scientific papers they publish. No other area of journalism has such a cozy, formalized arrangement between reporters and their sources of news.
This odd system has developed and flourished over several decades because it offers advantages for everybody involved. Journals get maximum publicity, journalists get time to report complex stories, and scientists get more widespread and more accurate public exposure for their work. Indeed, the system is so successful that it has recently expanded with the debut of Internet-based clearinghouses that funnel embargoed information from a variety of sources to reporters who agree to abide by the rules. Behind the scenes, however, the embargo system is increasingly embattled.
It's a system wracked by built-in tensions. Science is supposed to progress through rapid communication of results among scientists, but the embargo system can erect barriers to this exchange of information. Nowhere is this more apparent than at scientific meetings, where scientists are often unclear on the rules for discussing results that are under review or in press at a journal (see p. 867). Newspapers and their reporters thrive on scoops, yet scoops are ruled out by the embargo system—and even some science reporters say the system encourages lazy reporting and undue attention to incremental advances. When a big science story comes along, however, competition is hard to suppress until a paper is published (see p. 862). Moreover, intense commercial interest in molecular biology has created new problems when information that can send a company's stock price soaring is distributed to hundreds of journalists under an embargo (see p. 865).
These built-in tensions are exacerbated by a new factor: the Internet and the World Wide Web. The Web is not only transforming scientific publishing, it's also changing the rules of the embargo system. In a world in which scientific papers can be disseminated to online subscribers as soon as they are accepted, the publication date of the printed version—and the embargo release time—becomes somewhat arbitrary. Moreover, the Web has created new avenues for circulating scientific information—from preprints of whole articles to bulletins of new astronomical observations—outside the embargo system, providing fodder for enterprising journalists (see p. 868).
All this is prompting many journals to rethink their embargo policies. Most physical science publishers have already abandoned the system, the American Chemical Society has virtually scrapped it, and even some biology and general science journals may follow suit. For example, Nicholas Cozzarelli, editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), says he's in favor of “getting rid of the embargo” in its present form and is proposing a new policy to his board this week.
This package of articles examines these issues from the perspectives of journal editors, reporters, and the scientists who are often caught in the middle. But first, by way of full disclosure, it should be noted that Science itself has a stake—or, rather, several different stakes—in the embargo system. The scholarly publishing side of the journal has a strict embargo policy (see Editorial, p. 877), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science's publisher, has launched an ambitious Web-based clearinghouse for scientific information, EurekAlert!, that includes embargoed press releases. The News section, on the other hand, is on the receiving end of the embargo system: Science's journalists report independently on scientific developments published in this journal and others, and on data presented at meetings and elsewhere. Sometimes, the process even comes full circle when advance copies of Science news articles are distributed to other journalists under embargo.
Ask journal editors why they employ the embargo system, and the answer usually revolves around one issue: quality control. Insisting on secrecy from authors until their papers are published guards against public release of data that might not pass muster in peer review, and giving reporters a few days' advance access to papers that have passed review yields more accurate news. “The fundamental thing,” explains Jerome Kassirer, editor-in-chief of the NEJM, “is the protection of the peer-review process.” Says JAMA Editor George Lundberg: The system ensures that “quality is played out maximally in the public media.”
It was the NEJM that formalized the current system almost 30 years ago, when it published a set of principles known as the Ingelfinger rule, after the journal's editor at the time, Franz Ingelfinger. The Ingelfinger rule (see p.861) is still the guiding principle for the NEJM, but an estimated 300 other journals follow guidelines laid down by a group of medical editors calling themselves “the Vancouver group,” a reference to their first meeting place in Canada in 1978. The bottom line of their 25-page list of rules, updated most recently in 1997 (www.ama-assn.org/public/journals/jama/sc6336.htm), is virtually the same as that of the Ingelfinger rule. Journals “do not wish to receive a paper on work that has already been reported in large part,” the Vancouver rules state, regardless of whether it has appeared “in print or in electronic media.” They warn authors to expect “prompt rejection” of any manuscript judged by editors to be a “duplicate publication.” Presenting the data at scientific meetings is fine, but sharing “tables and illustrations” with reporters is not.
The multidisciplinary journals have similar policies. Science uses “a variant of the Ingelfinger rule,” says Editor-in-Chief Floyd Bloom, “to educate the public broadly and accurately.” He says that there are benefits for scientists, too: Embargoes draw attention to new findings, and this builds public support for science. Publicity also attracts “the best authors.” Philip Campbell, editor of Nature, says his journal's embargo rules are motivated by a sense of “fairness”—a wish to make results available to “everyone at the same time”—and by a wish to maintain quality. But he also acknowledges some “self-interest,” in that the embargo system “maximizes the profile of the journal.” Publishers also argue that editing increases the value of articles and that the embargo system helps reward journals for their contribution. (Cell Editor Benjamin Lewin declined to discuss the embargo policy of his journal, which has taken a strong line on prepublication publicity, especially at meetings; see pp. 866 and 867.)
Medical editors cite another reason for embargoes: They don't want physician-subscribers to be caught off guard by stories in the media before they have the issue in their hands. Says Lundberg: “We believe that physicians have a right to have access to the full information in the article prior to being asked by patients to explain what the TV or the newspapers said about a drug they're taking or a disease they may have.” Richard Smith, editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and a member of the Vancouver group, agrees, although he tries to take a flexible approach to embargoes. “It's in everybody's interest,” Smith believes, “to publish simultaneously the full scientific paper together with any media coverage.” That way, “if you're a critical reader, you can have a good stab at making up your own mind on whether you believe it or not.”
Once the journals are ready to publish, a multifaceted public relations enterprise swings into action, sending embargoed press releases from journals, institutions, and funding agencies to accredited reporters. Web-based science news services have recently sprung up to provide a central point for such information. EurekAlert! (http://www.eurekalert.org/), launched in May 1996 and financed in part by ads, is the prototype: It posts releases for university press offices, scientific societies, research institutes, publications, and government agencies in a public area and an embargoed news area, which 1860 certified reporters can access by password. Users pay nothing, but organizations pay up to $1000 a year to have material distributed. Adding to the PR blitz are several independent news services, notably Newswise (http://www.newswise.com/), which has scientific, medical, and academic clients similar to EurekAlert!'s; business services such as PR Newswire and the Dow Jones News Service; and an astronomy PR clearinghouse run by astronomer Stephen Maran.
Journalists who use this embargoed news generally appreciate the ready access to privileged information and the extra time to prepare complex stories. Says Tim Friend of USA Today: “I don't support [the embargo system] for any deep moral or philosophical reason,” but “I do think it's useful. It gives us all time to do the reporting and research that's needed.” TV reporters are appreciative, too. “Embargoes are useful for us because TV has to get a picture to go with the story,” which takes time, says NBC science correspondent Robert Bazell. Bazell also likes the way embargoes create news, as it's hard to get on the air without an event. “We can all have broadcasts the night before [publication], run headlines the next morning, and it's news,” Bazell says. ABC's medical reporter Timothy Johnson sees the embargo system as an “honor code” among reporters that elevates the quality of information.
But journalists who benefit from the system are not dewy-eyed about its origins or its aims. Its chief purpose, many believe, is to generate publicity. “There's an awful lot of self-serving rhetoric about the orderly dissemination of information,” says Bazell, adding that it's “shot through with hypocrisy.” Dan Greenberg, founder and former editor of the biweekly Science and Government Report, allows “some rationality” in the idea that “you want to give science writers time to digest the material.” Moreover, he sees nothing wrong with seeking publicity, because “the first obligation of a publisher is to stay in business.” But he dismisses the high-minded defense of embargoes as wrapping “a selfish purpose in a flag of public good.” As for the argument that doctors need to get the news before their patients, it's “absolute nonsense,” according to Greenberg. “I don't think I've ever come across a physician who reads [NEJM] the instant it comes through the mail slot.”
Lawrence Altman, a science writer at The New York Times, may be the system's most dedicated critic. He speaks of the “greed” of the journals, which in his view purvey “taxpayer-financed research” and boost their prestige—and hence their circulation and ad revenues—with embargoed news releases. In a two-part essay in The Lancet in May 1996, Altman suggested that journals seek to “swell advertising coffers by intimidating scientists and physicians into silence.”
Others worry about the effects of the system on the way science is covered. Tom Siegfried, the science editor of the Dallas Morning News, says the system has “broken down from what it was intended to be”—a method of sifting wheat from chaff by helping reporters find the hottest news—and become “a barrier” to getting information. The worst effect is “what happens before a paper is submitted,” he says: Scientists won't talk about research they're developing for fear that publicity will kill the chances of publication. The result, Siegfried says, is that embargoes “prevent precisely the kind of reporting that most people think would be better”—the type that seeks to document the gradual development of knowledge. Instead, he sees embargoes contributing to hype about “breakthroughs.”
From the biological or biomedical scientists' perspective, however, the embargo may be a good thing, says molecular biologist Tom Cech of the University of Colorado, Boulder. It may chill relations with reporters a bit, Cech says, but “I think it inhibits people from making premature announcements” before their work has gone through peer review. That's just fine, he says, because “we shouldn't be rushing to the press.” Others are less enthusiastic. Neuroscientist Solomon Snyder of Johns Hopkins University believes it is mainly the “vanity of the journals” that sustains the embargo system. Nathaniel Landau, a molecular biologist at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York City, who canceled a public talk in 1996 to avoid jeopardizing a paper under review in Cell, says the Ingelfinger rule is really about selfpromotion. He questions whether journals “have any business” asking authors to be silent.
In spite of such complaints, most biology and medical journal editors—and the reporters who feed off them—seem to feel that the system's benefits outweigh its disadvantages, and they are prepared to hold the course. Says Lundberg: “I don't see [the embargo system] changing much in the near future.”
Yet one substantial branch of scientific publishing has been undergoing a radical change of course: the physical science journals. Many journals in physics and astronomy once maintained strongly worded embargo policies, but they have gradually relaxed them in recent years. “It was certainly quite strict back in the good old days,” says Gene L. Wells, managing editor of Physical Review Letters (PRL), which has become the most prestigious journal in physics since its first issue on 1 July 1958. Now any restriction on publicity is at best informal, says Stanley G. Brown, administrative editor for The American Physical Society (APS), which publishes PRL and a number of journals focused on subfields of physics. Brown and Wells both say they doubt that early press coverage erodes the readership of their journals, pointing out that press reports seldom contain the scientific details of interest to readers of APS journals.
Embargo policies are no more draconian at the American Institute of Physics (AIP), an umbrella organization for APS and nine other learned societies, which publishes eight major journals itself, including Applied Physics Letters, Chaos, and Physics of Plasmas. Authors are simply asked—with little threat of enforcement—to wait until a paper is released to the printer before initiating any publicity, says Martin Burke, director of editorial operations at AIP. At that stage, peer review has run its course. Indeed, AIP itself often puts out an unembargoed tip sheet when a paper is accepted for publication in an APS or AIP journal, and reporters are free to write about the work well before it appears in print. Phillip Schewe, chief science writer at AIP, acknowledges that embargoes can catch attention: “There's nothing like putting an embargo on a press release to jack up the blood pressure of a reporter,” he says. But “it's pretty transparently self-serving.”
Topflight astronomy journals have followed the same route, relaxing previously strict embargo policies. “The change is that in recent years there have been huge numbers of reporters attending conferences,” says Helmut A. Abt, editor-in-chief of The Astrophysical Journal (Ap. J.), which is owned by the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and published by the University of Chicago Press. Reporters listen to talks or attend press conferences on results that will appear later in Ap. J. and Ap. J. Letters and write stories from the meeting, says Abt. “So we gave up trying to have an embargo,” he says. Paul Hodge, editor of The Astronomical Journal, another AAS publication, says that “when authors bring up the question about talking with reporters,” he asks them not to do so until a paper has been accepted for publication. But there is no sanction for not adopting the suggestion, and no paper has been rejected just because its content was publicized too soon, says Hodge.
Why the difference between the life and physical science disciplines? It could boil down to an ingrained openness that helped erode the embargo system from the inside, and the reality that few physics discoveries have an immediate impact on a company's stock price or a patient's questions, says Benjamin Bederson, a physicist at New York University who was editor of Physical Review A from 1978 to 1992 and editor-in-chief of APS from 1992 to 1997. “Physicists have not only been free in spreading their results—they're eager,” says Bederson. Asked whether there has been any change in the quality of press coverage of physics since embargoes have fallen by the wayside, Bederson says: “I didn't notice any serious change at all.”
The Internet: Changing the rules
Despite the wide-open attitude of physics publishers, many of them have long disliked one development: an electronic preprint server based at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico that freely distributes full-text copies of unpublished articles deposited there by authors. The archive (xxx.lanl.gov) is the work of physicist Paul Ginsparg, who began it in 1991. It signaled that the Web was about to change the rules of scientific publishing, providing a way to circulate papers widely outside the formal embargo system and potentially undermining conventional journals (Science, 9 February 1996, p. 767). That's exactly what Ginsparg intended. “Embargoes are clearly not in the best interests of scientists,” he said in an e-mail interview, adding that they “are shamelessly self-serving on the part of the journals.”
The archive posed an immediate challenge to journals that do not accept articles that have been published elsewhere. Most physical sciences journals have reluctantly decided, however, to consider papers that have been posted on Ginsparg's archive, although many would prefer not to. “It's a form of prepublication release,” says Alex Dalgarno, editor of Ap. J. Letters, “and it could impact the value of the journal.” The editors' dislike of the server is widely disregarded, says Frederick Lamb, an astrophysicist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Lamb says if journals decline to consider papers that have been posted on the Web, researchers would “vote with their feet … and just go elsewhere.”
Nature recently decided it will publish papers that have appeared on a public Web site. “Our policy,” says Editor Philip Campbell, “is that preprint servers are operating primarily as an intrascientific communication network and have the same sort of significance as a conference talk or list of published abstracts.” Internet release doesn't count as prior publication, he says, because the author is not implying that the article has been peer reviewed or that editors don't make an important contribution. “We haven't suffered yet,” Campbell says. Elsevier Science, adding yet another twist, says papers submitted to its journals may appear in a public archive or a home page as first drafts, but not editor-improved versions.
Science, however, is standing by its policy of not publishing papers that have been posted on the Web. Science Editor-in-Chief Bloom says: “If a paper has been publicly released on the Internet in the form that it was sent to us, then we consider that prior publication,” and Science may decline to take it. However, “if you assure us that you have a restricted site, we won't disqualify it” right off the bat. Monica Bradford, managing editor of Science, says physical scientists have been “very vocal” about their dislike of the policy. But, she says, “our physical sciences submissions have actually been on the increase, so I don't get the sense that it's been a problem.” She adds that rapid changes in the online world ensure that Science will continue to assess the policy.
So far, Web-based preprint publishing is mostly limited to the physical sciences. Ginsparg has opened a biology section in the archive, but entries are relatively sparse. And a separate venture run by HUM-MOLGEN, a nonprofit human genetics resource in the Netherlands, recently announced that it would post biology preprints after “low-key peer review” of submissions (Science, 19 June, p. 1807). But biologists are not yet clamoring to be published in it.
Nevertheless, at least one medical journal, the BMJ, is thinking the unthinkable: allowing potential authors to post electronic preprints on its own Web site. Editor Smith says BMJ already regards its Web site as the “primary” route of publication that has allowed it to reach “an entirely new audience” in the United States. His staff is now debating “whether to move to e-prints, as the physicists do.” BMJ might set up an area on its site where authors could post articles and receive comments, Smith says. If the author later wanted to submit the article for print publication, the BMJ would review it. “We're also looking at possibilities for doing peer review entirely openly on the Web,” says Smith: “I'm absolutely convinced that this is going to change everything.”
Few other editors are thinking of taking such radical steps, but a major scientific publisher, the American Chemical Society (ACS), has adopted a novel online publishing policy that changes the way papers are released to subscribers and the public. Beginning in January, the 26 ACS journals began releasing papers on the Web when they have been edited and checked by authors, sometimes as many as 11 weeks before they appear in print. ACS made the change because “authors wanted us to offer faster publication,” says publications director Robert Bovenschulte, adding that the decision was driven mainly by the technology. ACS felt it was embracing “the wave of the future,” adds ACS spokesperson Denise Graveline. Journalists are free to write about articles when they appear online, but this hasn't ended embargoes. Graveline says that ACS still notifies some journalists in advance of “a selected number of articles” before they are posted online.
Some medical journals have also used the Web for quick public release of papers that have important public health implications. Last year, for example, NEJM used the Mayo Clinic Web site to release a paper on heart valve injury associated with the fen-phen diet drug combination. And JAMA used the Internet last summer to distribute a paper on the adverse effects of a drug for hypertension. Lundberg says publishing online allowed the journal to post the full text, “bango, the same afternoon” that it cleared his desk. “Everybody responded beautifully, and we felt really good,” Lundberg says.
Does this new use of the Internet augur a major change in the way biology journals handle newsy reports? Lundberg is doubtful. High-priority articles are rare, he says, and JAMA is not planning to follow the ACS's lead yet and routinely post articles online before they appear in print. Kassirer, who says he tries “not to be too stiff-necked” about the rules, says things may change “over time … but at the moment, we are holding to our Ingelfinger rule.”
But some are ready to chuck tradition. PNAS's Cozzarelli, for example, would gladly go to early release on the Internet. “I believe that online preprints have made the embargo obsolete,” he says, and he'd like to rid science of the embargo system's “arbitrary” rules. But for many writers and editors struggling to keep up with science news, embargoes remain, as a biotech reporter says, a “necessary evil” that make the job more manageable.
Franz Ingelfinger's Legacy Shaped Biology Publishing
- Eliot Marshall
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.
Too Hot to Hold: Life on Mars and Cloned Sheep Couldn't Be Kept Under Wraps
- Eliot Marshall
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.
Trading in Science: A Volatile Mix of Stock Prices and Embargoed Data
- Eliot Marshall
When the U.S. stock market opened on Tuesday, 13 January, the share price of a small biotech company, Geron Corp. of Menlo Park, California, started to climb. The company had some hot research in press: a paper by Geron researchers, with colleagues at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, on an enzyme called telomerase that prolonged the life of human cells in culture. But the paper, under wraps at Science, was not to be released until 4 p.m. on 15 January, the day before its official publication date. Word had leaked out, and the Internet was abuzz with messages touting Geron's find.
The embargo break, ironically, was triggered in part by worries about the legal ramifications of potential publicity while the paper was under an embargo. A group called the Alliance for Aging Research (AAR), which promotes research on aging, had scheduled a news conference with some of the authors for 1:30 p.m. on 15 January to discuss the findings. Geron's lawyers, fearful that the press conference might be seen as an effort to pump up the company's stock price before the findings were officially announced, asked AAR to push the event back to 4 p.m. to coincide with the timing of Science's embargo. The group agreed, but sent out a notice of the schedule change on a business news service that also goes to stock traders. When the stock price took off, Science lifted the embargo (Science, 23 January, p. 472).
The episode—and a similar embargo break in 1995 involving a Science paper on the obesity-regulating hormone leptin (Science, 4 August 1995, p. 627)—illustrate the increasingly complex relationship between science publicity and big money. As University of Colorado, Boulder, biologist Thomas Cech notes, “Everybody knows that a Science article could be worth millions of dollars in the marketplace.” News of a biotechnology development—even one as remote from application as Geron's—is eagerly sought by investors, and companies love the publicity that publication in a major journal brings. But problems can crop up while a paper is going through review and is under prepublication embargo.
Companies can be in trouble if they pass privileged information to investors who buy or sell shares before the information is publicly announced. So, potentially, could journalists who receive embargoed press releases and their sources, with whom they discuss their stories. Indeed, Nature's weekly press tip sheet carries a warning that “Anyone dealing in securities using information contained in this document … may be guilty of insider trading” under British criminal law.
Companies must also walk a line between exaggerating the value of new data and keeping them too close to the chest. They feel compelled to reveal important information quickly to limit insider trading, but they also want the prestige that comes with publication of results in a peer-reviewed journal. There's also a temptation to publicize any favorable results, no matter how sketchy, to spur investment. Some have solved the dilemma by announcing a discovery with a general press release while withholding the science, so as not to divulge company secrets. The practice can preempt the embargoed announcement of a rival's discovery. For example, Millennium Pharmaceuticals of Cambridge, Massachusetts, did this in November 1996. Two weeks before a group at Oxford University was to publish a paper on the discovery of a type 2 diabetes gene in Nature, Millennium put out an announcement that it had found a type 2 diabetes gene. The company didn't reveal the details. In an editorial, Nature advised readers to treat the press release as “business news,” not “hard science.”
Myriad Genetics Inc. of Salt Lake City did much the same in January 1997 when it announced the identification of “the first major gene responsible for glioma,” a form of brain cancer. Myriad was in a tight race to beat two academic groups to the goal. Again, the press release contained few details (Science, 28 March 1997, p. 1877). Myriad's vice president for research, Mark Skolnick, said that the company had an “obligation to communicate whatever we say to all of our shareholders,” not necessarily to give priority to peer reviewers or journal editors.
Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, says, however, that the embargo system can be useful in helping authors resist corporate image promoters, although he doesn't like the Ingelfinger rule itself. When a commercial sponsor is trying to get an author to release unpublished clinical data, usually to boost PR or investor confidence, The Lancet can “support the investigator,” Horton says. It can tell a sponsor: “If you exploit these data in the public domain … that will jeopardize publication of a paper in a peer-reviewed journal, which undermines the very thing that you want to achieve.”
Public Lashings and Blackballing Enforce System Built on Trust
- Eliot Marshall
What happens when journalists or scientists break the embargo rules? Most journal editors interviewed by Science said they could not recall ever withdrawing a paper from publication because an author had spoken out of turn to reporters. Three said this has happened at least once, but none could name a scientist who had been punished.
A few journalists, however, have been disciplined, most spectacularly, Tim Friend of USA Today. Nature's former Editor John Maddox lashed Friend by name in a 6 July 1995 editorial under the banner: “Journalists who break agreed embargoes damage not only themselves but also their profession.” Friend's misfortune was to be present at a 27 June 1995 congressional hearing where Duke University researcher Allen Roses leaked word that a new Alzheimer's gene was going to be described in Nature 2 days later. This was reported by Peter Jennings on ABC's network news that evening, with an account of the implications but not the scientific details. Friend says he had already written his story before the hearing, based on information from other scientists and not just the embargoed article. His editor judged the ABC coverage to be an embargo break and ran the story the next morning.
Maddox ruled that Jennings had not been at fault because he had only used information from an abstract, while Friend had used details in the article itself. Nature stopped sending Friend embargoed material, but Friend says he continued to get it from colleagues and continued to honor the embargo. About 8 months later, after Maddox had retired, Friend was restored to Nature's list of trusted journalists.
Other organizations have been just as vigilant, although not necessarily so public, in tackling offenders. Nan Broadbent, public affairs chief for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), says several newspapers have been dropped from Science's embargo list. She also enforces the rules for a public Internet-based service called EurekAlert!, owned by AAAS, which provides embargoed information from 265 contributing scientific organizations to more than 1800 registered journalists. To get access to EurekAlert!, reporters sign a contract agreeing to abide by the embargoes on material posted there, and deliberate disregard for the rules is a contract violation, says Broadbent. “The effectiveness of the system is in its discipline,” she says, adding “You can count [violations] on one hand over many, many years.”
Another journal that has taken a hard line is Cell. In 1984, Science reported on work presented at a meeting that was also in press at Cell. Cell Editor Benjamin Lewin accused Science in an editorial of breaking Cell's embargo. Lewin was angered again in 1993 when the now-defunct Journal of NIH Research published an article about work by Harvard University angiogenesis researcher Judah Folkman that was in press at Cell. Cell subsequently added the following clause to the standard letter it sends authors when their paper has been accepted: “It is an absolute condition of publication that there is no release of information to Science or to the Journal of NIH Research until after the relevant issue of Cell has actually been published.” Authors were told they could share embargoed information with reporters from other publications before the issue date, however. The rule still applies to Science. Lewin would not discuss any aspect of the subject with Science, stating in a one-sentence e-mail: “Because Science's practices do not meet acceptable journalistic standards, we will not release material to Science under embargo or respond to enquiries on scientific or other matters.”
Scientific Meetings Produce Clash of Agendas
Sponsors want publicity, journals don't want to be preempted, reporters want stories, and scientists can be caught in the crossfire
All the pressures inherent in the embargo system converge at scientific meetings, often producing conflict and confusion. Scientists want to communicate their results freely, and meeting sponsors want maximum publicity for results presented there. But these goals can clash with the desire of publishers to see that papers due to appear in their journals are not preempted. Scientists are often caught in the middle, uncertain of the rules, and fearful of losing a publication if they make the wrong move.
Almost all journal editors say they don't want to impede scientific discourse. Physical science editors have gone furthest in this regard, permitting scientists to hold press conferences at meetings even if they have a paper under review or in press. Science Editor-in-Chief Floyd Bloom says Science tries to explain its policy in “big, bold, block letters”: Authors are free to discuss whatever they wish at meetings. But they're asked not to take part in a press conference or distribute a manuscript until the week before the paper will appear, at which point the journal distributes copies to journalists who agree to honor the embargo. Researchers are free to clarify points from their talks with journalists provided they don't go beyond the material they presented. Nature Editor Philip Campbell says scientists are “absolutely free” to say what they want at meetings. “The general principle is that we do not get in the way of intrascientific communication.” He adds, however, that “we do not like [authors] going into details in the press in a way that helps the press preempt the publication over and above what they've said in the talk.”
“We've never had a problem with people describing their data at a meeting,” says Jerome Kassirer, editor of The New England Journal of Medicine: “That bugaboo has been around for a long time, but I don't think it's real.” Indeed, even the famous Ingelfinger rule says that meeting presentations do not constitute prior publication. George Lundberg, editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association, says: “Basically, whatever authors have presented in their talk to colleagues is fair game and can be reported and should not be held against those authors at all.”
That sounds clear enough, but sometimes conflicting pressures on scientists can be intense. Take the case of Donald Umstadter, a physicist at the Center for Ultrafast Optical Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Two years ago, Umstadter gave a talk at an American Physical Society (APS) meeting about his recent success in accelerating electrons to high energies using laser pulses. He was also asked by officials at the American Institute of Physics (AIP), which promotes APS conferences, to repeat the substance of his talk in a briefing with reporters. Umstadter, however, had a paper in press at Science. “Of course I knew about the embargo policy,” says Umstadter. “So I called [Science] and asked if it would be OK if I participated in this press conference.” He was advised that it would be fine to give the talk but not to hold the press conference. He complied.
The decision led to discussions between Judy Franz, APS executive officer, and Richard Nicholson, executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science. “I thought of it as the policies of Science magazine interfering with the open exchange of information in our meeting,” says Franz. “It made us uncomfortable to have some secrecy imposed.” Phillip Schewe, AIP's chief science writer, who had asked Umstadter to hold the press briefing, was later quoted in the APS News saying the decision “amounts to an act of extortion: Forgo a press conference or possibly forfeit your paper in Science.” But Schewe concedes that his objection to embargoes has limits: APS embargoes material to be discussed at meeting press conferences. “If reporters have bought a plane ticket to come to the meeting, we have a special proprietary feeling in hanging onto that information,” he says.
Paula Tallal, a neurologist at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, was caught in a similar situation when she presented a paper at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in November 1995. Tallal discussed a technique she and Michael Merzenich of the University of California, San Francisco, had developed for training learning-disabled children. At the time, a paper on the work was under final review at Science, and Tallal was worried that if her talk got too much attention, Science might kill the paper.
Reporters from The New York Times, Newsday, and other media were “all over my poster,” she says. The society's public affairs chief, Joe Carey, was trying to get her to give a press conference, but she canceled. Tallal recalls that a representative of her sponsor, the Dana Foundation, was trying to steer the publicity to television. Tallal was so concerned, she says, that she dodged reporters' questions, refusing to clarify her results for Newsday's Jamie Talan. But Tallal had already discussed her work with a reporter for The New York Times, Sandra Blakeslee, on the understanding that Blakeslee would not go to press before the official publication date. When Blakeslee announced in a tense encounter in front of Tallal's poster that she intended to publish a story on the research from the meeting, Tallal recalls, “I nearly had a nervous breakdown.”
Blakeslee says she had “sat on that story for a year” before the neuroscience meeting: “I had visited [Tallal's] center at Rutgers. I had met the children. I had talked to the parents. I had the neuroscience. I had it all.” When she realized that Tallal's results were being displayed in four abstracts and a poster, Blakeslee says she decided that “to wait an extra 3 weeks … just didn't seem right.” The Times published Blakeslee's detailed story. Science agreed that it did not constitute an embargo break and published Tallal's paper about a month later (Science, 5 January 1996, p. 77).
Sometimes, however, a low-key warning can be enough to persuade a researcher not even to give a talk at a scientific meeting. That apparently happened in two cases involving Cell. Molecular biologist Nathaniel Landau and his colleague Richard Koup had found a mutation in human cells that enabled patients to resist the AIDS virus, and Landau wanted to present the data at the international AIDS meeting in Vancouver, Canada, in 1996. But because Landau had submitted a paper to Cell, he first checked with Cell Editor Benjamin Lewin. Landau recalls a polite but unnerving reply: Presenting the data, he was told, “might make it a little more difficult for us to publish your paper.” That was all it took to silence him.
In an earlier case, a colleague of James German of the New York Blood Center in New York City decided not to give a scheduled talk on the discovery of a Bloom's syndrome gene at a meeting in 1995 after getting advice from Lewin. German, whose group had a paper pending at Cell, says, “Cell didn't threaten us,” but Lewin did telephone, and the talk was canceled (Science, 10 November 1995, p. 909). In an e-mail, Lewin declined to discuss with Science these cases or any of Cell's policies on embargoes.
“The journals are very powerful,” Landau says. “At Science, Nature, or Cell, if the editor says to you, ‘We want you to do this,’ or ‘We don't want you to do this,’ you kind of have to do it, because … it might jeopardize your paper.”
A Media Darling Thrives on Publicity
- James Glanz
In astronomy, where funding can depend on press clips, embargoes and a tradition of rapid communication are sometimes in conflict
Knowledge is power, as the philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon realized in the 16th century. Embargoed knowledge can bring even greater power—as science administrators, publicists, and journal editors have realized in the late 20th century. The practice of embargoing information to increase its impact touches all scientific disciplines. But nowhere do embargoes, and the people who enforce them, influence the public release of results as completely as in the publicity-saturated field of astronomy.
Only in astronomy could one research team's looming press conference—an event orchestrated by NASA—force another team to forgo peer review before publicizing its new discovery. Only in astronomy could the potential loss in press coverage caused by a leaky embargo raise concerns about the continued funding of an experiment costing hundreds of millions of dollars. And perhaps only in astronomy could one team's results be unveiled at an embargoed press conference as a “first” when another team had submitted similar results to a journal months earlier.
All of these things have happened in astronomy in the past year. And although it is difficult to imagine the same problems arising in, say, condensed-matter physics, the difference is only one of degree: As a media darling, astronomy simply faces an outsized version of conflicts that are cropping up in many fields. The magnifying glass of astronomy shows that embargoes and publicity change how scientists communicate with each other, how they assign priority for discoveries, and how they secure funding for projects.
As in other fields, the institutions that impose the embargoes—in this case NASA, the sponsors of astronomy meetings, and journals such as Science and Nature—are often in conflict, and astronomers can get caught in the crossfire. At the same time, the wide availability of information on the Internet and at conferences is making it more and more difficult to keep stories secret while they are under embargo. Indeed, some of the field's most prestigious journals, including The Astrophysical Journal, have decided that it's so hard to maintain secrecy that they have relaxed once-strict rules against prepublication publicity.
Behind the jockeying for press attention lies one factor that sets astronomy apart: Publicity can be closely tied to funding. Guenter Riegler, chief scientist for mission operations and data analysis in the Office of Space Science at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., confirms that potential and actual media attention, under the rubric of “public outreach,” plays a role in determining the fate of satellites that have been proposed or are already flying. “When we review various missions side by side to see which ones we should continue and which ones not, that's one of the considerations we give,” he says. “That's a part of our formal policy.”
But whereas Riegler says success in the media is a “small component” in determining that fate, an internationally known astrophysicist says pressure to promote the agency is intense in a climate in which NASA operating funds are chronically scarce. “Officials from NASA headquarters come to the user groups for the different missions and tell them flat out, ‘If you want your mission to continue, you'd better get more prominent press coverage than you have up to now. You're not keeping up; television is everything,’” says this astrophysicist.
National press coverage can also ensure prosperity for university research programs, says Charles Telesco, an astronomer at the University of Florida, Gainesville. After his team's work was written up in a Newsweek cover story, says Telesco, funds, university resources like graduate students and equipment, and the benefits of visibility flowed more freely from state foundations, deans' offices, and at least one national funding agency. But Telesco says the publicity came at a price: To keep up with NASA's publicity machine, his group had to bypass peer review at a scholarly journal before promoting its results.
The story began on the night of 18 March, when Telesco, Ray Jayawardhana of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and others, using a telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, saw a dusty disk where planets might be forming around a star called HR 4796A. After some deliberation, the team decided to submit its results to either Science or Nature—journals with relatively quick turnaround times. But Telesco soon discovered that those publication times would not be quick enough: He learned not only that a team including Michael Werner of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena had photographed the same disk at about the same time using the Keck II Telescope in Hawaii, but also that NASA—whose “Origins” program funded the team's work—had scheduled an embargoed press conference on Caltech's results for 21 April.
That put Telesco in a difficult position: If he waited for peer review to run its course, his team's discovery would be eclipsed by the NASA announcement and Science or Nature probably wouldn't publish the paper anyway, because the findings would no longer be novel. “We were caught in a trap,” he says.
Eventually Telesco's team was invited to join the press conference, which he says went well. Instead of sending the paper to Nature, Telesco sent it to Astrophysical Journal Letters, but he says the resulting delay in publication cost other astronomers a chance to read the peer-reviewed paper and observe the disk before it disappeared behind the sun for the season. Werner, who stresses the educational value of the announcement for the public, feels differently. “To me, the most gratifying thing was that there was an editorial in the Los Angeles Times—not just an article but an honest-to-God editorial—saying this is the kind of exciting work NASA should be involved in,” he says.
The issue of peer review is a sensitive one for Edward Weiler, NASA's acting associate administrator for space science and the person who controls all the agency's Space Science Updates—major press conferences. (Weiler is also scientific director of the Origins program.) On 4 June, Weiler was harshly criticized in a Nature editorial for again skipping outside peer review and rushing to give a press conference on the possible first image of an extrasolar planet (Science, 5 June, p. 1531). Weiler says he is often “torn” between his scientific training and the benefits of presenting credible discoveries quickly. But as to the Nature editorial, he says: “A British journal telling NASA and the American taxpayers how to get science to our benefactors takes a little moxie.”
Sometimes, however, the Science and Nature embargoes are themselves at issue. Last spring, thanks to the Internet alerts called International Astronomical Union Circulars, it became widely known that two Dutch researchers had discovered the first millisecond x-ray pulsar—a rapidly spinning stellar hulk emitting blips of energetic radiation. When the news side of Science decided to report on the work, the lead researcher was forced to decline comment because a paper on the find was under review at Nature and therefore embargoed.
Every other astrophysicist in the world, however, was free to comment for the Science story (22 May, p. 1193)—and several did, sometimes after checking with the embargoed researchers. “I was in very close contact with the authors,” says Frederick Lamb of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Lamb says he assured himself that, by speaking about the results, he would not jeopardize either the paper's acceptance or the press release that Nature later issued before the paper was finally published on 23 July. The question of coverage in the popular press was paramount, because the continued operation of the satellite that detected the pulsar—the $195 million Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer—was up for NASA review last summer.
The release did garner a burst of press attention, and whether coincidentally or not, the satellite passed its review. But the embargo system at both Science and Nature “complicates matters enormously for us,” says one prominent astronomer who asked not to be named. “To me the whole thing just seems very childish,” says the astronomer, who sees embargoes as inconsistent with the ideals of open communication in science.
Even when astronomers shun Internet publication, however, the increasing number of reporters attending scientific meetings often makes it impossible to keep secrets. During a talk at an American Physical Society meeting last April, Caltech's Shrinivas Kulkarni told hundreds of physicists that his group had found the distance to a tremendous gamma ray blast at the edge of the visible universe. In the middle of his talk, just before spilling the beans about the discovery, Kulkarni asked any reporters in the audience not to cover his remarks: NASA had planned a press conference to coincide with his forthcoming paper in Nature. A reporter who was present did cover the story (Science, 24 April, p. 514). An “embargoed” NASA press conference took place 2 weeks later.
Despite the increasing porosity of embargoes, the person many regard as the single most influential promoter of astronomical research in the United States believes most science reporters and editors find embargoes far too useful to undermine the system intentionally. “It's hard to decide what is a big story in pure science, so you look at what the competition's doing,” says Stephen Maran, an astronomer who is now assistant director of space sciences at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the press officer of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), and a science writer himself. Embargoes induce the media to work in synchrony, says Maran, so a particular editor can justify finding space for a story and need not fear being scooped.
Maran distributes electronic press releases on astronomy that he receives from universities and research institutions—often at a rate of several a day—to a list of over 1000 reporters, editors, and public-relations specialists. At AAS meetings he also arranges regular press conferences that are heavily attended by the press. Both the releases and the press conferences are usually embargoed and often receive extensive coverage.
As useful as reporters (including this one) have found Maran's press conferences, they too have caused their share of controversy. In a common hazard of science reporting, some results presented with much fanfare later turn out to be wrong. But one embargoed press conference at an AAS meeting in Washington, D.C., last January went further—announcing a “discovery” that had already been discovered. The work focused on a sort of warm glow permeating the universe, called the cosmic infrared (IR) background radiation.
The previous October, a team led by Marc Davis of the University of California, Berkeley, had submitted a paper to The Astrophysical Journal in which the IR background was teased out of public data obtained by NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer satellite (COBE). But in the 9 January press conference, a team led by Michael Hauser of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, whose own manuscript had been submitted on 5 January, announced the “first definitive detection” of the IR background in the same data.
When pressed by reporters, Hauser conceded that his results were consistent with Davis's but said his team had done a more complete analysis of the data. Davis does not dispute that contention, although at the time he shot back that “the only thing they have that we don't is their public-relations machine” (Science, 9 January, p. 165). Hauser, whose team built the COBE instrument that originally gathered the data, emphasizes that the Berkeley work was mentioned in the press conference. “I believe we were intellectually honest,” he says.
Maran says he did not know about Davis's paper while arranging the press conference and that there should not be a problem in assigning priority for the discovery. “I don't think precedence in science depends on your press clippings,” says Maran.