Ask TON: Sending Embargoed Papers for Outside Comment

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Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:

My young science-writer friends recently disagreed over a question regarding embargoed studies. When seeking outside comment, some people send copies of embargoed studies to scientists in their initial email, while others will ask scientists to agree to the embargo before sending it along. What’s the correct approach?

Ivan Oransky, founder of Embargo Watch, co-founder of Retraction Watch, and distinguished writer in residence, New York University:

While it’s likely, in this day and age, that most scientists a reporter would ask for outside comment would be familiar with embargoes, that’s not a sure bet. And even if a scientist is aware of embargo policies, he or she is unlikely to have agreed to them en masse through a clearinghouse such as EurekAlert! The same way that a press officer can’t just send a reporter material and call it “embargoed” before the reporter has agreed to the embargo, a reporter can’t just send an embargoed study to an outside expert and call it embargoed. If a scientist breaks the embargo, the embargoing journal or institution could plausibly blame—and sanction—the reporter, not the scientist. If for no other reason than safety’s sake, ask first.

Then again, it may be time to rethink embargoes altogether.

Megha Satyanarayana, engagement editor, STAT:

The embargo applies to the reporter, not the scientist. It’s the agreement between the reporter and the journal in question not to publish anything ahead of the set time. I’d be super surprised to hear of a commenting scientist breaking an embargo, but of course, I’m sure it’s happened. If a reporter wants to (and should) get outside comment, it’s absolutely fair for the researcher being approached to want to read the paper first.

I think that a simple “FYI, this research is under embargo until xxxx, and my story won’t go out until then” will suffice. I don’t think there is a need to have the scientist agree to the embargo—if anything, I’d worry it creates a bit of antagonism between the reporter and the researcher commenting, and could be seen as a bit insulting.

Kendra Pierre-Louis, staff writer, Popular Science: 

Unless I have a preexisting relationship with the outside commenter, I only send the embargoed study after the potential commenter has agreed to provide comment and to honor the embargo. I’m not afraid the commenter will break the embargo, which is a small risk, but because doing otherwise feels impolite. It’s rude to send someone a study before they’ve even agreed to provide comment. An email that asks them to comment on a study that has the study attached seems to insinuate that I assume they’ll agree to comment. It makes the email feel like my request is a formality—it isn’t. And, depending on where they are—remember, researchers travel to parts of the world with slow, pricey internet—attaching even a typical sized PDF can clog up precious bandwidth. I work hard to signal that I respect the researcher’s time and their expertise. To me, that means asking and then waiting for a response before sending the study. So, while sending the study along with the request might be a time saver for me, it isn’t all about me.

Gabriel Popkin, freelance science and environmental writer:

I send the paper in the initial email and inform the scientist about the embargo. It seems really unlikely to me that a scientist would leak an embargoed paper; they all seem totally on board with the embargo system. And sending the paper in the initial email minimizes the number of emails we have to send back and forth.

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