Public Lashings and Blackballing Enforce System Built on Trust

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Science  30 Oct 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5390, pp. 866
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5390.866

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.”

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