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Embargoes, journalism, and good coverage of science

Posted on 08/03/2019 | in 杭州夜生活 | by

Science has published a book review that doubles as an editorial about embargoed information and science journalism. Its appearance is timely, as the topic touches on issues similar to those raised by a recent controversy regarding tech journalism: what compromises have to be made in return for access to information? It also comes as the writers at Ars’ science section, Nobel Intent, have begun the process of getting press access to many of the major scientific journals. HangZhou Night Net

The journals have asked for some minimal indications that the Ars science staff is engaged in reporting on science. Once accepted, we typically receive access to press releases and research papers several days in advance of their general release, provided we make no mention of their contents prior to specific dates provided by the journals. This allows us to do what we’ve always done—read the primary literature and describe the logic and experimental approaches used—with the added benefit of getting the stories out at the same time as the popular press does. This hopefully makes Nobel Intent a better primary news source.

The embargo process seems to work well enough from our perspective, but both the book and its reviewer don’t seem to agree. The reviewer (Richard Horton) in particular has a distinct perspective on the matter, having overseen an especially notable case where several major newspapers failed their end of the bargain. Horton is the editor of The Lancet, which ran an article in which the authors estimated the total civilian casualties in Iraq. It was an article with clear political implications, and the standards of political reporting won out: the embargo was widely ignored, reporters rushed for the scoop, and The Lancet was forced to pull embargoed access from The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

The piece makes a number of arguments regarding why the existing system is bad. As the Iraq casualties story illustrates, it imposes an unusual constraint on the standard practice of journalism, in which competition for coverage of stories plays a key role. More disturbingly, it turns the editors of scientific journals into gatekeepers, who not only choose who gets to be considered a journalist, but then point those who are approved to a subset of the work their journals publish. The author of the book in question, Vincent Kiernan, suggests that these cutting-edge results won’t necessarily be the best science and may not hold up in light of future work. It is argued that the combined weight of these factors removes the impetus for reporters to perform their primary mission: critically analyzing the information published in scientific journals.

It doesn’t appear, however, that either Horton or Kiernan suggest an alternative system. This is unfortunate because, for all its flaws, the embargo system does provide some obvious benefits. It goes a long way towards ensuring that scientific work isn’t reported to the public until after it has gone through the peer-review process, and that science reporters at least have the option of reading the actual literature (as opposed to press releases) when preparing their reports. In the absence of the embargo system, reporters would presumably still rely on the press releases from these same editors but, in their rush for timely coverage, would have little incentive to spend the time reading the actual scientific publication, much less subjecting it to a critical analysis. In other words, it seems that ending the current system could leave the editors in place as gatekeepers (via their role in formulating the press releases) while dumbing down the coverage by eliminating its reliance on the actual science.

Other potential issues of an embargo-free system include having journalists pester researchers for access to data that hasn’t been peer-reviewed and the chaotic release of information that may have major financial and policy implications. The alternative, of course, is to have major media outlets cut back on their coverage of science, an alternative that Kiernan appears to consider a positive development. I personally view that as a poor solution and suspect that there is enough public interest to keep it from being a viable option.

To an extent, the embargo system seems to be a bit like the cliché about democracy: it’s the worst system, except for all the alternatives. The scientific journals seem to be pretty reasonable about whom they consider journalists, and providing access to the actual publications goes a long way towards allowing competent science reporters to make sure that what they’re covering is solid science. Providing science writers with embargoed information also does nothing to discourage us from covering stories beyond the ones that have been highlighted by the editors or waiting until after a journal issue is generally available to find science that the editors have chosen not to emphasize. It remains possible, however, that my positive views of the embargo system are influenced by having been accepted into it.

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