PIOnet is mildly abuzz today with chatter pertaining to Monday’s Inside Higher Ed piece about the embargo system employed by science journals (“The Embargo Should Go,” by Vincent Kiernan).
Kiernan’s premise is that science writers have a love-hate relationship with the embargo practice. While reporters like Natalie Angier of The New York Times believe that “the embargo system gives journal editors ‘a stranglehold on journalistic initiative’,” Kiernan notes that “[j]ournalists are enthusiastic participants in the embargo system and act to keep it functioning. In short, if journalists are in a stranglehold, it is a self-inflicted stranglehold â€” and one that does not serve the public interest.”
It need not be this way. Journalists could do end runs around the embargo, if they wanted. â€œAny decent journalist knows whatâ€™s in Nature next week,â€ says David Whitehouse, science editor for the BBCâ€™s Web site. That point is exemplified by Robin McKie, science reporter for The London Observer. He writes for a paper that publishes only on Sundays; because of the embargoâ€™s timing, journal articles seem like old news by the time his paper publishes. Consequently, McKie refuses embargoed access to journals but nevertheless has broken news of important embargoed studies such as the cloning of Dolly and the results of decoding of the human genetic sequence. Much of his reporting, he says, is based on talks given by researchers at open meetings.
On the PIOnet listserv, one PR guy noted that embargoes have become “part of marketing efforts for particular journals. They usually serve no journalistic function. Whenever someone comes to me and wants me to embargo a news release, they have to come up with a pretty powerful story even to get my attention.”
Wrote another PIO:
… [S]cience/medical writers already have a variety of options other than doing pack journalism: they can go to science conferences, peruse abstracts, press releases, tip sheets…….the very things that seem to be getting disparaged here [in Kiernan’s article].
Instead of covering the same thing many other writers are covering, an enterprising reporter can find a wealth of fascinating, context-rich stories in the material sent out by PIOs. PIOs always have compelling stories on tap for enterprising reporters — stories that go begging. …
Those press releases and tip sheets aren’t the problem. The problem, I think, can be that enterprising science/medical don’t realize that those releases and tip sheets are signposts that can lead them into a world of original, and perhaps, exclusive, reporting opportunities. And with the substantial output of material from universities daily, enterprising reporters hardly have to worry about stepping on each other’s toes chasing the same one or two stories.
How better to get your nose under the tent that to make a point of following up on more of those press releases and tip sheets? They’re not the only way to get your nose under the tent, but they are surely a quick, effective way to discover stories — and new sources — that can be a font of future enterprise pieces and new contacts.
Let’s hear it for the PIOs!
Yes, let’s. Huzzah!
A lot of great work is happening on college campuses that doesn’t make it into the scientific journals. Much of it isn’t necessarily of the breakthrough quality the big-league science journalists are looking for. Some of it is applied research that is leading to innovations in the marketplace. Some of it is student-centered research that doesn’t find its way into Nature or Science, but into smaller journals.
Maybe the real stranglehold here isn’t the embargo system, but science journalists’ reliance on the journals for their news.
Then again, maybe the problem is like that encountered by another PIOnet member, who wrote this about his experience at a conference organized by science writers from the New York Times:
I spent almost the entire time defending PIOs and news releases. They were very negative towards us and put down news releases. I brought up a few stories they had developed from news releases — a few were mine, most were from others.
I not only didn’t get my bang for the buck, but any good reputation they might have had with me took a nose dive.
Unless things have changed — I don’t know because I have never gone back — if the NYT science writers are any indication, there may not be many “enterprising” science writers out there looking at news releases.