23 July 2007

Are embargoes bad for science journalism?

The former BBC science correspondents, David Whitehouse, is stirring up things with his piece in The Independent, Science reporting's dark secret. David does not like the embargo system. He is not alone, this is an issue that has cropped up here from time to time.

Just in case anyone does not understand how the system works, David explains that "many, though not all, journals that publish scientific research operate an embargo system. It involves sending out details to journalists provided they agree not to publish anything about them until the embargoed time."

It is David's line that the result of the system is that "science coverage can be indistinguishable across outlets". That's because everyone waits for the embargo to lapse and then shovels their articles into print. As David rightly says, the embargo system "encourages lazy reporting and props up poor correspondents".

Even within the journal system there are ways to avoid the pitfalls of the embargo system. You could read some of the lesser journals. Few put out press releases. Indeed, it is only a small coterie of the self-professed leading journals that indulge in this practice. It isn't even a long standing practice. The embargo really did not come into ots own until the 1980s.

While David makes much sense, as usual, he is wrong to finger the embargo system as the main cause of the problem. It is really down to something else that he describes when he writes: "With the embargo system and the arrival of the internet it's easy to churn out story after story, usually without leaving your desk."

It is this last factor that really kills good science journalism. many a science writer I have talked to spends little time out of the office. They just sit there, hunched over a steaming terminal, browsing the torrent of electronic information and plucking out of it the stories that will get by the news editor.

That is why we get what David describes when he writes "We have many fine science reporters in the UK but there are some poor ones that do little else but reproduce press releases and embargoed copy."

Leaving the office and visiting scientists in their own habitat makes the embargo system irrelevant. You talk to the researchers as they do their work. Most will tell you what they are up to, and you are free to write about it.

This is how Dolly first surfaced. Some say that this was down to a broken embargo, but in reality the writer had the story before that paper entered the system. As David writes: "It was The Observer, outside the embargo system, that got the scoop about Dolly the cloned sheep in 1997 even though thousands of other journalists worldwide already had the press release but couldn't talk about it for another four days."

If you really want to know what is really hot, go to a scientific conference or two. Forget about the two events that seem to appeal to journalists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. They provide nothing new.

Go to the specialist events and sit through the presentations. That is where you will hear about science that will not surface in the journals for a couple of years or so.

There are journals that will refuse to publish papers that have already appeared in the media. Well that is their threat. Someone should call their bluff.

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