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Old news under embargo

What did Phoenix see?

By Hamish Johnston

In September 2008, planetary scientists told the world that the Phoenix Mars Lander had made several interesting discoveries on Mars — you can read all about it here on the NASA website.

This was duly reported by the BBC and other popular news outlets.

The scientists also wrote several scientific papers about their findings and submitted them to a prestigious journal — which now has the cheek to “embargo” the story until the papers are published!

That means that if I report on the papers before they are published I could lose my access to the journal’s embargoed preprints. Also, if a scientist had spoken to me about their paper while it was being peer-reviewed — and I had written about it — the paper could have been be dropped by the prestigious journal. Which is bad news for the researchers.

But I won’t be reporting on it because you already know what Phoenix saw on Mars

So what is the point of the embargo? Is the journal simply going through the motions of its embargo policy — or is this a cynical ploy to get this story back into the news?

I’m not the only one wondering about the point of embargo policies — Julianne over at Cosmic Variance started a good discussion earlier this month — and of course our very own Jon Cartwright looked into the practice last year.

I suppose I’m particularly ticked-off about embargoes because last week I came across two papers on the arXiv preprint server that would have made for a fantastic news story. I spent an hour or so doing background research and then asked a freelance journalist to cover the papers. He invested more time…but guess what, both papers had been submitted to prestigious journals and the authors wouldn’t talk.

So instead of being rewarded with a scoop for my daily scouring of the arXiv, our story will be published at the same time as those who simply waited for the press release.

It’s soul destroying!

So, what do you think?

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One comment to Old news under embargo

  1. Ender

    It looks like this is a very special case, which happened because of the way NASA spreads its results. Their PR department is often too quick to release news, sometimes making important mistakes. This doesn’t seem to matter much to them; what matters is to keep the public aware of how they’re spending their money. In other subjects which aren’t so spectacular, this isn’t the rule. True, there are university PR departments devoted to highlighting the scientific results of their institutions, but they do so once the results have been published in peer-reviewed journals, not before. I guess everyone learnt the lesson after the Pons and Fleischmann cold-fusion fiasco. I understand your frustration, though. In this particular case the journals in question are acting in a bureaucratic way. Regarding your research on ArXive, on the other hand, I would say that it suffers the problem that, since ArXive isn’t subject to peer review, you have the advantage of having access to early communications and controversial papers, but the disadvantage that some results are actually not ready for release. I see your point though; what about all those reliable papers which are still in a “preprint stage,” and you’d like to report about? Until a better system is devised, it looks like it will be better to respect the embargo rules, and ask the journals to be more reasonable in the way they apply them. Whether it’s right or wrong, NASA will keep making press releases long before the material is published in peer-reviewed journals.


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