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Embargos and confidentiality

Filed under: — gavin @ 23 September 2012

This post is not about climate science, but rather about the science/media interface.

As many of you may be aware, papers that are scheduled to appear in high-profile journals (Science, Nature and a few others) are often released a few days early to journalists under embargo in order to give them a chance to do a fuller story and talk to more people about it prior to filing. On balance, this works reasonably well, and the press stories that come out are on the whole better for it (there is a bigger issue with the need for a news peg for most science stories that this practice dominates, but that isn’t the focus of this post).

But Carl Zimmer and Maggie Koerth-Baker recently reported on a situation where a high profile paper was only provided to journalists under embargo if they signed a non-disclosure agreement restricting their ability to show it to other scientists for comment.

This is both very unusual and, frankly, appalling. Science and science publishing are not a branch of the PR industry but part of an open and self-critical process of inquiry. Authors and scientists who do not want their results discussed and/or criticised should not submit them for publication in the first place. As Koerth-Baker and Zimmer make clear, articles about new papers that are simply reworded official statements are not journalism at all. Indeed, the need for journalists to get an unaffiliated opinion from the author’s peers is an essential check on the occasional tendency of press releases to go over the top when pushing a particular study, and is something that should be happening more, not less.

This post is really just about putting on record that this is not a practice that ‘scientists’ are advocating for and we, like the journalists linked above, would strongly advise that if such conditions are imposed, journalists, journals and editors do not accede to them. That will help resolve the issue of whether ‘no publicity’ is indeed preferable.

Finally, while I am sort of on the topic of science journalism, can’t we please, please, please mandate the citation of the DOI tag in any online story about a new paper? Tracking down the actual paper being described is all-too-often far more difficult than it needs to be. (For example, the doi for the study referred to above took four links and a targeted google search to find. Why?).

Science journalism is going through a tough time at the moment, and practices that take the reporting of science further away from science as a process and more towards the repetition of ‘gee whiz’ factoids, should be resisted by anyone who cares about the public’s engagement with science.


  1. G. Séralini, E. Clair, R. Mesnage, S. Gress, N. Defarge, M. Malatesta, D. Hennequin, and J.S. de Vendômois, "RETRACTED: Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize", Food and Chemical Toxicology, vol. 50, pp. 4221-4231, 2012.

65 Responses to “Embargos and confidentiality”

  1. 51
    chris says:

    Is European regulation “anti-science” Alistair? I wouldn’t have said so. European regulations on the use of antibiotics in animal feed, for example, is rather more “scientific” than equivalent US policy, and reflects scientific understanding of the mechanisms unerlying antibiotic resistance rather well.

    I have only anecdotal/personal experience in the GMO issue. But my feeling is that the greater resistance of GMO in Europe is not so much with the real or potential dangers, but rather with the feeling amongst Europeans that in many cases the primary impetus for pushing GMO is to advantage corporate lock down and to promote the sort of mechanization of food production that Europeans are rather more resistant to. This is especially true in France, Spain and Italy whose national “character” is closely linked to food production and use, and whose citizens are much more likely to question why on Earth one would wish to substitute traditional practices. On the other hand I imagine that the average European, informed of the potential benefit of golden rice as a vitamin supplement in the developing world, would likely think this a great idea (so long as they were persuaded that it works and wasn’t a corporate scam!).

    So science isn’t everything. Recent European legislation to improve animal welfare in egg laying poultry and feed animals conforms to the tendency towards less intrusive/mechanistic approaches to food production, and whether this is or isn’t justifiable on “scientific” grounds is beside the point. I think Europeans are rather savvy on food production and are rather resistance to the adoption of other peoples “memes”. They’d generally like to be told the truth on matters scientific!

  2. 52
    Donald Condliffe says:

    The doi link here did lead directly to a link to full text and a downloadable pdf (Thanks very much for setting a good example). I plan to read the paper, but have only had time to quickly scan it so far. I do not have time to do statistical analysis of the data presented in the paper, but I think the methodology to use would be a Cox proportional hazards regression analysis to combine the data across dose levels, particularly since the N per group is small. I will wait to see response papers. Although the paper has weaknesses and seems to have political aspects to the way it was presented, at first glance there does seem to be a toxic effect of the GMO maize. This maize has gone into very widespread production and hundreds of millions of people have eaten lots of it. Then to have apparently serious questions raised about its safety is very troubling.

  3. 53
    Eli Rabett says:

    The answer, as with many of these things is that the authors if they feared pressure should have simply not released the paper until publication. Judging from the NDA and the response the paper is getting elsewhere this is increasingly an arsenic and old bacteria paper with perhaps a dash of cold fusion tossed in for spicing.

  4. 54
    SecularAnimist says:

    Alistair Connor wrote: “the regulatory regime for the approval of GMOs in Europe, which is currently anti-scientific in the extreme”

    There is nothing “anti-science” about the regulation of GMOs in Europe.

    If anything, the history of this issue suggests that it has been US policy that is “anti-scientific”, in as much as little if any appropriately serious scientific inquiry into possible harmful effects of GMOs was done before they were declared GRAS (“generally recognized as safe”) and released into the wild — at least in part due to the documented influence of GMO manufacturers like Monsanto over US regulators.

    There seems to be a tendency in certain quarters towards a knee-jerk reaction that any public concern about the effects of technological products of science — e.g. nuclear power or GMOs — is “anti-science”. That’s illogical, and just plain wrong, and it often comes from people who have not themselves taken the time to look deeply into the issue.

    There are petroleum geologists and engineers who think that concern about global warming is “anti-science” and “a religion”.

  5. 55
    sidd says:

    1) I see a number of attempted rebuttals to the Seralini paper, but none that address the pituitary,renal and liver findings or the mortality numbers. The attacks seem to concentrate on the tumour findings.

    2)Why was this the only study conducted over 2 years ? An uncomfortably large fraction of the world human population has been eating these products for ten years or more. Why was not a long term study done before introduction of these products to world markets ?


    [Response: This isn’t really the place for a discussion of the details of this paper – you’d be better off going to the more relevant blogs. The discussion here should be focused on the science/media aspects. – gavin]

  6. 56
    Mal Adapted says:


    If anything, the history of this issue suggests that it has been US policy that is “anti-scientific”, in as much as little if any appropriately serious scientific inquiry into possible harmful effects of GMOs was done before they were declared GRAS (“generally recognized as safe”) and released into the wild — at least in part due to the documented influence of GMO manufacturers like Monsanto over US regulators.

    SA has it right. In the US, RoundUp Ready® creeping bentgrass (Agrostis stolonifera) has been at least temporarily blocked from commercial release, but the GMO genes escaped from field trials, and despite eradication efforts are still being detected in wild populations. The Scotts Company has been fined $500,000, but the genes are irretrievably loose in the environment. Introduced bentgrass is already a pernicious wildland weed, and restoration ecologists, preserve managers and conservationists in general may now lose one of the few effective tools against it.

  7. 57
    Mal Adapted says:

    AARGH! (still waiting for Swear Like a Sailor day): fixing my busted link above

  8. 58
    Patrick says:

    Fully agree, just to push further the pressure on any scientific journalist reading this: ALWAYS PROVIDE THE DOI !!!

  9. 59
    Unsettled Scientist says:

    Carl Zimmer gave an interview to “On the Media” about this issue. An audio stream is embedded in his website: Walk Away

    He discusses some of the scientific issues with the paper, but also reiterates the more serious issue of disallowing journalists to do their jobs in order to stage a positive media frenzy.

    “It is really important to make sure that the first reporting on a something is done right, because a lot of times that is just what people look at.”

  10. 60
  11. 61
    Patrice says:

    Hi guys, one question for you, as I am unsure of it: does DOI stands for Digital Object Identifier or it has other meaning ?

    [Response: Yes. – gavin]

  12. 62
    SteveR says:

    RE: several comments on paywalls & article availability:

    In the US, the style has been to on the one hand, to mandate OA of publicly-funded studies (accessible through the free-access database PubMed), and on the other, for independent sponsorship of OA journals like PLOS. Here’s a really good information resource on OA for anyone who’s interested:

    In a recent issue of ACRL, there was a pretty rosy scenario of impending widespread OA adoption based on the “disruptive technology” model: (pdf free: click on full-text pdf link)

    I’m no statistician, and I’m not sure I buy widely (over?-)applying disruptive technology, but it was reasonably convincing, and since the author was calling for recognizable changes within a few years (oddly, on a similar schedule to recent re-estimations of ice-free-arctic summers), we’ll know soon enough.

    If you’re at an R1 university in the US, get to know the “Scholarly Communications” librarian. These folks are the ones behind securing the rights from journal publishers to host article manuscripts on university repositories & on faculty web-pages. Support them. If your university doesn’t have an Open Access Mandate, lobby for one. Tell your Schol Comm Librarian that you want to put as many of your published article manuscripts as possible on the university’s Institutional Repository (IR); they’ll help you figure out which articles (and versions) you’ve got rights to post. These folks can also help you with data archiving; they’ll help organize old data-sets (even ones stored in “legacy” formats) and put them on the IR as well, so you’ll have the data-sets in perpetuity, and be able to share them with colleagues.

    (No – I’m not one of these librarians myself. I’ve just finished an MLIS & learned about them in some depth. Wave of the future & all.)

  13. 63
  14. 64
    Susan Anderson says:

    Russell provides pearls worthy of price, especially earlier item:

    “A Field guide to the Trolletariat” which contains this yet more valuable gem:

    Very helpful gloss on the likes of Orssengo, Vuckevic, Arrak et al. It was obvious who they were, but it always helps to have some documentation.

    R’s capacity for common sense belies his background, demonstrating that reality bites. “The entry for acceptance into the sane scientific world is to get labelled a “warmer”. Then you will deserve your philosopher diploma.”

  15. 65

    Per #64, Thanks for highlighting my Climate Clowns report, which provides a kind of field guide to the “denizens” at Climate Etc.

    here is a shorter URL:

    It’s kind of hard to believe that there are over 40 people that comment at CE regularly with their own crackpot climate science theory. And that doesn’t even expose the microscosm inside the SkyDragon sect, who collectively get but a single entry. And it doesn’t include whatever is going on at WUWT, which I don’t think I could keep up with.