The Reluctant Scientist: When Meeting Presenters Get Cold Feet

[CORRECTED 1/15/18: The original version of this story incorrectly asserted that a researcher was upset that a reporter was covering his conference presentation. In fact, the researcher, Cliff Tabin, did not object to the talk being covered. He declined an interview while the study was under review, but answered the reporter’s request for clarifications about the study. After the story was published, Tabin objected because he believed the article implied that his quotes came from an interview, when in fact they were from his talk. The Open Notebook regrets the error and apologizes to Dr. Tabin for misrepresenting his actions. The relevant paragraphs have been edited. To read the original version, click here.]

In August, freelance science writer Viviane Callier attended a small evolutionary-developmental-biology meeting in Calgary, Canada. She had asked the organizers if she could attend and report on the meeting, and they had agreed. Callier, a freelancer, hoped to turn some of the talks there into stories.

She particularly liked a talk about a blind cavefish. So she pitched the story to an editor at Scientific American, who gave her the assignment. But when Callier reached out to the researcher for an interview, he declined, explaining that he had submitted his research to a high-profile journal and that he worried that if he spoke to her on the record, the journal would reject his paper. Callier tried to assuage his concern by relaying what she had heard from her editor—that an interview with her wouldn’t jeopardize his publication chances—but she didn’t receive a response. Ultimately, the story ran without an interview with the researcher, relying on quotes from his conference presentation as well as comments from other researchers.

Callier isn’t alone in her struggle to balance the free flow of scientific information with a desire to mollify scientists who are reluctant to share their work. I heard from more than a dozen people who have experienced similar resistance to press coverage at scientific meetings. My reporting suggests that researchers’ reluctance seems to vary somewhat by field—biomedical researchers tend to be more wary of releasing unpublished results than astronomers or physicists. But no field is immune.


Rules—Written and Unwritten

The journalistic rules about covering presentations are clear: Anything presented at a meeting is fair game unless the organizers have explicit policies that say otherwise. As long as you haven’t hidden the fact that you’re a journalist, “if someone says something and you write it down or you record it, you can report on that,” says Ivan Oransky, a long-time medical reporter and editor who founded the blogs Retraction Watch and Embargo Watch. “It’s actually that simple.”

Andrew Seaman, a former medical journalist and current chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ’s) Ethics Committee, agrees. “You present to a room of 100 or 200 people, that’s no longer private information,” he says.

But scientists don’t always understand or accept those rules. In many cases, they hesitate because they fear that press coverage of their work will constitute prior publication, something that nearly all scientific journals prohibit. (For a more in-depth discussion of how this rule arose and its impact on science and science journalism, see this 2015 article by Oranksy.)

A sampling of high-profile journals’ policies on media coverage of meeting presentations. (Click to view full document.)

That fear is unfounded. Most journals make it clear that scientists can and should present their unpublished work at meetings—and that press coverage of those presentations will not hinder publication of research studies.

The policies around whether scientists can talk to reporters about their unpublished results, however, are not always as explicit.

Science’s editorial policy notes that “authors should feel free to present their data at scientific meetings but should not overtly seek media attention or give copies of the figures or data from their manuscript to any reporter.” That doesn’t entirely answer the question of whether they can agree to an interview. On a separate FAQ page, however, Science says that “comments to press reporters attending your scheduled session at a professional meeting should be limited to clarifying the specifics of your presentation.”

Similarly, Nature’s policy suggests that authors of submitted or accepted manuscripts may not speak with journalists about talks given at meetings. According to the policy, “presentation and discussion of material submitted to a Nature journal at scientific meetings is encouraged, but authors must indicate that their work is subject to press embargo and decline to discuss it with members of the media.” However, a 2009 editorial seems to contradict this policy. The authors point out that journalists can cover results presented at a meeting. “This is not considered a breaking of Nature‘s embargo. Nor is it a violation if scientists respond to journalists’ queries in ensuring that the facts are correct—so long as they don’t actively promote media coverage.”


Does Press Coverage Ever Lead to Papers’ Rejection?

I tried but failed to find an example of research that was presented at a meeting, reported in the press, and then rejected because of that coverage. (I did, however, unearth two tales of papers that were rejected or nearly rejected because of photos or illustrations that had appeared in the popular press. And one researcher told me that Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences did not consider his paper for press dissemination because of prior press coverage.)

That failure, of course, doesn’t prove that these kinds of rejections have never occurred. But it does seem to suggest that they are rare. Alice Henchley, communications director of Nature Research, says she is not aware of any Nature paper that has been rejected due to press coverage of the research, although she points out that her knowledge is not exhaustive. When Callier told her editor at Scientific American, Josh Fischman, about the cavefish researcher’s concerns, Fischman reached out to two manuscript editors at Nature. They assured him that press coverage wouldn’t harm the scientist’s publication chances.

That policy applies at Cell, too, says Joseph Caputo, media relations manager at Cell Press. “If a journalist goes to a conference and learns about a story, and writes about that story, that has never affected Cell Press’s decision to publish a paper,” he says.

Even so, many scientists remain dubious that top journals won’t hold press coverage against them. “They think that if they talk to a journalist, that their research will not get published,” says Tina Saey, a reporter for Science News. And journals do little to discourage that belief, Oransky says.


A Chilling Effect

The language in journals’ policies matters. “That sort of overly strict embargo policy that makes scientists think that they cannot ever talk to journalists about work that they publicly present has a chilling effect on scientific communication,” says Fischman. It’s “a disservice to science and to the public that science serves, and to the science that the public largely funds.”

Scientists’ fear of journals rejecting their studies because of press coverage can lead to misguided attempts to control information. In 2011, Emily Lakdawalla, a senior editor at the Planetary Society, attended a joint meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences and the European Planetary Science Congress, a meeting that press were invited to attend. She was particularly excited to hear new measurements of the size of Eris, a planet that helped spark the demotion of Pluto. But when the presenter took the stage, he said that he had submitted his research to Nature and asked the audience not to cover his talk.

“It’s quite frustrating when that happens,” Lakdawalla says. “Here’s a person who is speaking in front of a crowd, intentionally telling people about his work, and then imposing this embargo on everyone,” she says. But that’s not the way embargoes work. “An embargo is an agreement between two people,” she says. “You can’t unilaterally impose an embargo.”

The gambit worked, though. Lakdawalla didn’t feel like she could write about the talk without damaging her relationship with other scientists. Soon after the meeting, however, she realized the presenter had included the “embargoed” results in his abstract. They had been online all along.

Other efforts to control media coverage of scientific meetings are less polite. One science writer attended a marine biology meeting at which the presence of journalists and their purpose there was made clear.


“When journals don’t make loud, repeated pronouncements that talking to reporters is just fine at conferences, then researchers will err on the side of not talking to reporters.” ~ Ivan Oransky


One talk seemed particularly compelling, and the writer lined up an outlet that was interested in publishing a story about it. But when she contacted the researcher for an interview, he declined to be interviewed and asked her to hold off on writing a story until he could submit his research for publication at Nature. Citing Nature’s embargo policy, she explained that coverage of his talk would not threaten his ability to publish. The researcher still objected to her covering the talk. But after speaking with her editor, the writer decided to go ahead with the story without the scientist’s cooperation. The scientist emailed again to say that if she persisted, he might be forced to badmouth her to his colleagues.

The writer, who asked to remain anonymous, decided to kill the story. “It sort of changed my whole way of thinking about conferences,” she says. “I decided I don’t want to piss off the scientist even if it’s going to mean giving up a good story.”

Such obvious bullying is unusual, but “the core of the story isn’t unique at all,” Oransky says. He blames scientists’ wariness on the “publish-or-perish” culture. “When journals don’t make loud, repeated pronouncements that talking to reporters is just fine at conferences, then researchers will err on the side of not talking to reporters,” he says.

So what is a reporter to do?


Know the Rules

First, make sure you know the rules set out by the meeting organizers. These can vary widely from conference to conference. “There really aren’t any standardized conventions or understandings,” says Lisa Munoz, who is the public information officer for the Cognitive Neuroscience Society and who has managed media relations for several scientific societies. “It usually depends on the size of the conference and the institution that’s running the conference.”


“If I’m inviting you to the meeting, you do what you think is appropriate as a reporter.” ~ Lisa Munoz


Sponsors of large conferences, like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, publishers of Science), encourage press to cover their annual meeting, and they prepare researchers to communicate with reporters. The organizers have a large newsroom and host news briefings. The meeting’s social media and embargo policies are laid out online.

Smaller meetings may not have any explicit rules. At the Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting, “I basically give press free reign,” says Munoz. “If I’m inviting you to the meeting, you do what you think is appropriate as a reporter,” she says. In the absence of any embargoes or explicit prohibitions of media coverage at a meeting, reporters should assume that all presentations and poster sessions are open to press.

Other meetings prohibit media from reporting on research presented there unless they have the permission of the presenter. For example, many meetings at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory are open to reporters, but the material presented there is off limits unless a presenter explicitly says otherwise. The organization says that abstracts, oral presentations, and posters “must be treated as confidential personal communication and cited only with full consent of the presenting author.” David Stewart, executive director of meetings and courses at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, says this policy helps create a safe environment for researchers to talk about unpublished work and get feedback from their colleagues.

Policies surrounding social media and recording can vary, too. AAAS, for example, allows live-tweeting, but asks attendees to respect the presenter’s wishes if he or she requests that the audience refrain from sharing the content of the talk on social media. The American Diabetes Association, in contrast, has an across-the-board prohibition on photographing or filming sessions at its meetings without special permission. But credentialed journalists at ADA meetings are allowed to use a handheld recording device for note taking. The Society for Neuroscience, however, allows only press conferences to be recorded.


Know Your Rights—But Have Compassion

Second, know your rights as a journalist. If there are no explicit rules preventing you from covering talks, you don’t need a scientist’s permission or cooperation to write about their presentation. And often the information you need is in the talk itself, and you can solicit outside comments from others who attended.

However, the SPJ Code of Ethics encourages reporters to show compassion and sensitivity for sources who aren’t experienced in dealing with the media. That group includes some scientists, notes Seaman, who chairs SPJ’s Ethics Committee. If you do want to get presenters on board with media coverage of their talks, you may need to help educate them, he suggests. “Journalists giving scientists a 101 course on what’s going to happen helps a lot,” he says.

Saey, from Science News, has found that most researchers who are reluctant to talk to her aren’t sure whether they’re allowed. She sometimes sends them top journals’ embargo policies. “I need to know the rules, and I need to be able to demonstrate to them what the rules are,” she says.


Ultimately, every journalist has to decide whether to move forward with a story based on a conference presentation, even when researchers decline to cooperate.


The editors and reporters at Spectrum, which covers autism research, keep a spreadsheet of stories the outlet has written based on meeting presentations and papers that later came out of that research. It’s one way to try to convince scientists that talking to reporters won’t jeopardize their chances of publishing their manuscript, says Nicholette Zeliadt, a senior news reporter at Spectrum. “I almost feel like it’s my duty to try to correct researchers’ misconceptions about conference coverage,” she says. She says she thinks perpetuating the myth that coverage of meeting presentations threatens researchers’ publication prospects “is making it harder for all of us as journalists to cover work that we’re entitled to cover.”

Ultimately, every journalist has to decide whether to move forward with a story based on a conference presentation, even when researchers decline to cooperate. If pursuing a good story might make a researcher upset or angry, or might even trigger retaliation, only you can weigh the risks and benefits of doing so.

Oransky hopes to see more science journalists push back. “At a time when some think science journalists are just cheerleaders for science, we should all be a little less afraid of pissing off a source,” he says.


Cassandra WillyardMaureen Cassidy

Cassandra Willyard

Cassandra Willyard is a freelance science writer based in Madison, Wisconsin. She covers everything from ecology to epigenetics, but her favorite topic is infectious diseases. You can read her work in DiscoverPopular ScienceNature, and Scientific American. She also blogs for The Last Word on Nothing. Follow her on Twitter @cwillyard.


  1. What doesn’t get attention here is a scientist’s potential motivation to refuse an interview at a conference. It’s not always their choice, but often times they are at the mercy of their supervisors or co-authors who have instructed them not to speak.

    I also agree it would be extremely difficult for a scientist or journalist to get an honest response from a journal editor on why they refused a manuscript.

  2. The real problem is that nowadays , to get [tenure | a tenure-track job | another postdoc job at famous institution]. it is not enough to do good work and publish it in an appropriate (e.g. scientific society) journal, one must have a publication in a ‘high-impact’ journal like Nature or Science (even if often publication in a more specialized journal would be more appropriate). So I can understand that some scientists are afraid and do not want to do anything that would decrease their chance of getting their article accepted by a high-impact journal, even if most often, just by statistics, their article may be rejected anyway for any reason.

    At the same time editors cannot admit that it was some previous publicity of a result that nudged him/her to a decision not to accept an article, as Patrick B. points out above.

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  5. I think a fundamental problem on display here is a lack of understanding of — and a lack of trust in, which is part and parcel — the real role of the media. It’s called the Fourth Estate for a reason. (The other three being the branches of government; like them, the news media exert influence over society at large.) We act on behalf of the public. We are not collaborators, cheerleaders, partisans, promoters, or profiteers. Our goal is to find information and share it, ideally while minimizing harm. Because we live in a capitalist society, we earn a (usually modest) paycheck for doing this.

    The first line of the profession’s most commonly adopted code of ethics spells out journalists’ mission pretty succinctly: Seek the truth and report it. That’s really, at the end of the day, what we’re doing, whether at a scientific meeting or a Congressional hearing or a football game. We are trying to find information and bring it to people who need it, maybe because it will help them, maybe because they paid for it, maybe because they want to read a good yarn during their lunch break, maybe other reasons.

    We don’t work for scientists, except in the sense that they are human members of the public like any other reader. This is not about drawing a line in the sand. This is just the way it works! We’re not trying to be mean, and we’re not saying we can’t also be friends and share interests. But we are most definitely not collaborators. Cygnus, I’m curious what you thought journalists were? If the descriptions we’re laying out here are contrary to your ideas, I’m curious what your ideas were, and how you got there?

    • I guess I really knew all of the above… I’ve been at this a long time (just turned the big 5-0 this year). It still kind of surprised me to hear how the presentation of science results is viewed by journalists. This whole thing about “they mentioned it at a conference, so it’s out there, so I can report on it even if the scientist begs and pleads for me not to” still sounds so harsh and unforgiving.

      My very first comment a few days ago was a reaction to the word “bullying” to refer to the scientist who (must have) said something like “If you go ahead with the story, I’m going to be forced to tell my colleagues not to work with you.” If the scientist really said he would “badmouth” the journalist, then that’s wrong. But if he really just said something equivalent to “If you act in bad faith like this, you’ll get less access to me & my colleagues.” Not bullying… just self-preservation!

      Two other things come to mind:

      1. At least in my field, having journalists cover the main sessions of big conferences is either (a) rare, or (b) not well-known by the attendees when it happens. There’s potential for huge misunderstandings. That’s on us, not you, to deal with. 🙂

      2. Again, at least in my field, having journalists cover ones’ work is NOT necessary for career success. Yes, there are scientists who go the extra mile and get their names in the press quite a bit, and they usually do well for themselves. It can be a great thing. But it’s not necessary. Every other aspect of what we do is, in some way, under our control. Our journal papers undergo peer review, but the final revision is ours. Our talks are completely in our hands. This is necessary, both from the standpoint of academic freedom (a core principle that is essentially a cousin to your press freedoms), and because we often deal with abstruse and complicated things that only we can explain properly. Giving up such a huge piece of that control to a journalist just seems like a losing game, no matter how it goes.

      Argh, I probably shouldn’t say “we” so much. I don’t speak for all scientists.

      Anyway, I know journalists have the best of intentions to get everything right, but I’ve seen so many cases of it being gotten very wrong. That scares me. If the potentially worst representation of my work has the ability to be seen by the biggest possible audience (compared to my smaller pool of colleagues), then why am I doing this?

      My whole push for “collaboration” is just an attempt to fix what I see as the above problems. It goes too far, as I’m seeing from your pushback, but isn’t there SOMETHING that can fix the above problems?

    • I guess I never closed the loop on one thing: Taking into account my perspective that there’s no real upside to getting one’s work out into the press, it was shocking to hear that there’s a CHANCE (even a teeny tiny one) that I could be pulled into a media story without my consent — and that the reporter would feel fine about continuing with the story despite all my begging and pleading.

      You know, I think I have thought of a possible solution. At least for me. If I am attending a conference at which journalists will be present in the audience for my talk, I will aim to preface my talk with a kind of “Opt Out” slide. I’d have to finagle the wording with the organizers, to make sure I’m not doing anything they’d be opposed to. But I’d try to convey that I do not give my consent for the talk to be covered by journalists in the room. (Again, I’d have to figure out the proper words, to make sure my colleagues don’t feel stifled.)

      If the organizers aren’t open to that? Welp, I guess I’d do my best to scrub any speculative or not-yet-published remarks from my talk, and do my darndest to keep my mouth from wandering off on tangents.

      Of course, I’ll also start lobbying my scientific societies to rethink their policies. Sorry, but I still think journalists should be there to cover the events in the press room, and that’s all.

  6. Gosh, I don’t know, everyone. I guess I should relax and accept that journalists aren’t going to be what I thought they were. It’s hard to accept these hard lines in the sand that you’re insisting on. As I’ve said several times already, scientists are taught to collaborate and compromise at all levels of what we do. (Maybe this is an idealization, and there are bad apples.) But please don’t be surprised that we seek out a more equitable relationship, in which both sides have some say about what gets published.

    (Yes, yes, you can say “It’s my story,” but there would be no story without “my work” that’s being covered. In many ways, it IS a kind of collaboration.)

    This exchange has certainly made me more fearful of presenting my results at big meetings that allow press coverage in the main sessions (outside the press-release dog and pony shows). It’s probably an uphill battle to try to convince my scientific societies to change their policies, but I think I’m going to start to try. The main sessions of scientific meetings ought to be PRIMARILY for scientists to exchange ideas with one another, without having to worry that something they say will show up in the media the next day.

    • Cygnus – if they’re a responsible reporter, and most are, they’ll reach out to you at the session for an interview. Writing about research without the author’s input is frowned upon, and leads to mistakes!

      This article isn’t saying that journalists should just forge ahead without scientist consent. The issue is that many journalists get turned down for interviews at conferences – not because the scientists don’t want to share their work, but because they’re afraid it won’t get published if they do. Which is, as Willyard points out, patently untrue. The article aims to correct that misapprehension, not to encourage journalists to be jerks.

  7. Jennie Dusheck says:

    Thanks, Cassie and Siri for starting a great discussion about a persistent problem.

    I don’t think it’s ever going to go away completely but it helps a lot to discuss it.

    I think there’s a place for improved education and transparency that would really help.

  8. Nice work Cassie. This is a very good summary of the problem and some good tips to avoid problems. In my experience scientists often want to make a big splash both at a meeting and in a big journal. This is totally understandable – you worked hard on the project. But if you are truly worried about a journal going against what they say in almost all of their policies (namely, not to punish someone for getting covered in the media) then I guess you have to choose one or the other.
    Except according to every journal and press officer I’ve ever asked, there is no choice. Journals genuinely don’t care that some journalist wrote a 600 word summary of your poster. Honestly. I have heard several reps from journals say that scientists who were refused based on the content of their work blamed a news story. Being an outsider to that world, I can’t say if this is true but I know that if a journal was shown to have refused a good paper because of a news story they would face some blowback. Patrick, share your experience with Cassie – that ain’t right.
    Relax scientists, journalists are not the enemy nor are we bullies nor are we collaborators. We just report.

  9. Jeanne Erdmann says:

    I want to thank Cassandra for an accurate and thoroughly-reported story ( I do readily admit my bias as co-founder of The Open Notebook and editor-at-large).

    I write features and rarely cover news. For me, attending meetings helps me keep up with a particular field, develop sources, and find story ideas that no one else has found. However, if I were to attend a session and hear about news-worthy findings, I’d contact any of my editors immediately and do so without any qualms.

    Press attendance at meetings is pretty common so it shouldn’t be a surprise to find journalists in attendance.

    I would also reiterate what Gabe Popkin posted in response to de Pooter, we’re not in this for the money, nor to distort what scientists present. We love what we do — and most days that needs to be its own reward .

  10. Jennie Dusheck says:

    Anonymous: (2) Press officers (i.e., shills). We all know how they’re viewed. 🙂

    Yes. I do.

    Speaking after a two-year stint as an institutional shill, I’d like to say that it was a constant battle to balance what was best for the institution; what individual scientists needed, wanted or just demanded; and what seemed ethical.

    In choosing what news releases to write, I looked for the best or most important science. If the work was in mice, not people, we tried to say so in the headline. That was office policy.

    In more than one instance, I said no to a scientist at my own institution and ran into intense blow back from the individual. They could be anything but collegial. In one case, I was obliged to write a news release I didn’t think was ready for prime time by a researcher with an obvious financial COI. In another case, a researcher rewrote my news release lede and headline to hype his findings, and take away my carefully constructed language that gently hinted at the limitations of the work.

    It is not the case that scientists are always careful guardians of the truth and writers are always wild exploiters who will do and write anything for a good story.

    In most cases, researchers were extremely collegial and easy to work with. But my point is that some scientists don’t abide by the “collegial” rules of engagement they trot out when they feel they aren’t getting what they want.

    Generally speaking, it’s a redflag for me when someone tries to tell me unilaterally that I’m part of their team (or should be). It usually means they want to call all the shots.

    I’m quite happy to no longer belong to the team of whomever happens to rings me up in the morning.

    • I agree there are huge differences between biomedical fields (as above, with their crazy financial pressures) and the more physics/math/astronomy end of things (which I’m most familiar with). There are publicity-hungry scientists in every field, too. They may be the loudest sometimes, but I earnestly believe they’re in the minority.

      Still, my own experience has been the exact opposite of the above. It was the PIOs who pushed on the scientists to jazz things up and get them to claim that “Yay, the problems are now all solved.” Gag.

  11. Siri Carpenter says:

    Cygnus writes (but this system won’t allow further levels of threaded replies):

    “I fear this just drives scientists to remain within the warm embrace of their institutional Press Officers and never leave that cocoon. That’s the feeling that I’m taking away from this exchange, for sure. Could there be a third option, though?

    (1) “Real” journalists who stick to this Woodward & Bernstein absolutism, but build up no trust in the scientific community.

    (2) Press officers (i.e., shills). We all know how they’re viewed. 🙂

    (3) I don’t know, some kind of collaborative partner that builds up a good relationship with a scientist, yet also maintains an healthily independent point of view? I get the feeling Dava Sobel may be an example of someone who’s walked this middle ground successfully.

    This exchange has spurred me to think about a lot of these things for the first time, so I’m just spitballing here.”



    No. Science journalists ARE “real” journalists. Sometimes we’re reporting on interesting/intriguing/important study results. Other times we’re investigating wrongdoing of some kind. It’s a mistake to think that there’s real, Woodward-and-Bernstein journalism and then there’s science journalism, where we kind of pretend to be journalist-ish, but really we let our sources drive. Science is awesome and powerful, and scientists are most often wonderful, creative forces for good. But science is an institution that taxpayers shell out billions of dollars for, and it’s a human endeavor, and journalists’ job is to shed light on that endeavor, good or bad. We can’t do that well if we think of ourselves as being “collaborators” with our sources.

    As for press officers: I definitely do not agree with the assertion that PIOs are shills. The best PIOs, and there are many of them, are conscientious science communicators who are an essential piece of the science writing ecosystem. They are not mere promoters’ of their institutions’ interests.

    • Apologies if I was insinuating that science journalists aren’t real journalists. In many ways, I was claiming that they’re acting TOO MUCH like the adversarial investigative kind of journalist. I was really just wondering if we’ll eventually come up with a different model for how this stuff is done. A whole ‘nother type of science writer altogether — one where the term “collaborative partner” isn’t such a bad word.

      Facts on the ground: The more adversarial you are, the less trust you will engender in the scientists you cover, and (in the long run) the less access to them you’ll get.

  12. As a UK science journalist there may be cultural differences here, but I’m surprised by the willingness of journalists to entertain demands from scientists that you don’t report their work. If it was presented at a public conference, it’s fair game – as long as you don’t need their further help in order to write it up, of course.

    I’m also baffled by the idea we might feel so shaken by a scientist asking us not to do the story. They have the right to ask, and we have the right to do it anyway. As journalists, we should be able to shrug it off.

    • See my response to Siri below. I guess we really are coming from hugely different worlds. As a scientist who works in large teams of heterogenous people (where the need for collegiality and compromise is ever-present), I guess I’ve assumed journalist “colleages” fall into the same category, too. Guess not.

  13. This is a difficult conversation, but definitely one worth having.

    Cassandra, in response to Patrick, you said that you wouldn’t use a photo/image without a scientist’s permission. That’s nice, but it does contradict some of your earlier words about how everything is fair game if “the information is out there.” I was also troubled by your statement that:

    “I can’t give you control of the story because . . . journalism.”

    THIS is what we’re questioning. It may be a fundamental principle of modern-day journalism, instilled in J-school students from Day 1, but we’re still questioning the need for such a hard line in the sand. I think we’re calling for a stronger “Subject’s Bill of Rights” or something.

    This situation reminds me of another example (which came to mind immediately yesterday, but I held off mentioning it because it may raise the temperature level). What about the case of a closeted gay person whom a journalist “outs” in the press, despite their protestations for privacy? It’s really a similar thing… The person may say “Please don’t do this, it will ruin my life,” but the journalist says, “Nope, you’re a (however minor) public figure, and the public has a right to know. It’s repression to tell a journalist to quash a story!”

    You do know that 99.999% of the public would call such a journalist HUGELY UNETHICAL, right? There are times when simple human decency (i.e., the “collegiality” I referred to yesterday) should take priority over some absolutist interpretation of what journalism is supposed to be all about.

    • Cassandra Willyard says:

      The gay thing really happened! Did you listen to that Radiolab on Oliver Sipple? But that example doesn’t seem at all equivalent. I’m reporting on the research (perhaps publicly funded?) that you presented at a meeting, not delving into the details of your sex life. And I’m still not entirely sure how a news story about your research could ruin your life.

      Like I said, I’m human. If you come to me with some concrete reason why you don’t want the research publicized, I will listen. Maybe you’ll convince me that there is some real danger.

      But let me try giving you an example: What if a political reporter didn’t write stories that politicians didn’t want written?

      Regarding the image/figure question, I would assume that there are copyright issues. I can’t snap a photo of someone else’s photo and then publish it without the photographer’s permission. So when I said, “everything is fair game” I was talking about everything that gets said or presented on the slides or posters, not the slides or posters themselves. I wasn’t thinking of images/figures. I should have made that clear.

      • Siri Carpenter says:

        Ha, I see that Cassie was writing her response and making the comparison to political reporting at the same time I was. 🙂

    • Siri Carpenter says:

      As the editor of this story, I’d like to weigh in here. Cassandra is entirely right to say that journalists cannot and should not give sources control over their stories. Can we be collegial? Of course. Should we be decent human beings? Of course. But should we cede to scientists the decision about whether the press can cover work that they present at meetings that are open to press? Absolutely not. (As Cassie has said in the comments here and elsewhere, scientists are of course free to discuss with meeting organizers whether those meetings should in fact be open to press.)

      As a thought exercise: Imagine that a political reporter were asked to get permission from the White House before publishing a story about something that a member of the Administration said in a public forum. Any thinking person would regard journalists’ acquiescence to that request to be flat-out poor journalism. The same is true of science journalism. Good journalists are thoughtful and discerning in how we report and write stories; we’re sensitive to the idea that preliminary results should be described as such, etc.; and we’re respectful of the human beings who they cover. But as much as we may (most often) like and respect the scientists whose work we cover, we are not working for scientists — scientists are our SOURCES, not our PARTNERS. We’re working for our readers.

      • Wow, I guess it’s tilting at a windmill to ask journalists to even think for 1 second about questioning this fundamental assumption. I’m still a bit flummoxed by the Absolutism here. “Never cede the control! Not one inch!” Are there other professions, other than the military, that take such a hard line? Scientists have strong ethical guidelines, too, but SO MUCH of it is about treating colleagues decently and with respect.

        (Okay, I guess the “outing gay people” thing was a non sequitur. But if so, then that means the political examples are also not relevant. The “science beat” is its own thing.)

        Well-intentioned scientists will always want to pursue a collegial, partner-like relationship with journalists. We want to produce good content for readers, too, so we get confused when these walls go up. Some of us have also been burned — and those stories get around. It’s no wonder reporters are often assumed to be “the enemy.”

        How do we fix this? I’ve been saying that one obvious solution would be for journalists to just give a little on the control issues. Respect our wishes (as a matter of POLICY, not just one-off good-will) if we say “Please don’t publish that.” If that’s a non-starter, I’m not sure there’s enough good faith on both sides to continue.

        • Siri Carpenter says:

          Cygnus, I hear you. No one wants to think that their work may be misrepresented. And no one is arguing here against collegiality; Cassie has emphasized she, like most journalists, is happy to hear scientists out about their concerns. But collegiality, friendliness, decency … these are not the same thing as partnership. For a journalist to act as a “partner” with her sources, or to cede control over a story to a source, no matter how well-intentioned the source may be, is a violation of core journalistic principles.

          • I fear this just drives scientists to remain within the warm embrace of their institutional Press Officers and never leave that cocoon. That’s the feeling that I’m taking away from this exchange, for sure.

            Could there be a third option, though?

            (1) “Real” journalists who stick to this Woodward & Bernstein absolutism, but build up no trust in the scientific community.

            (2) Press officers (i.e., shills). We all know how they’re viewed. 🙂

            (3) I don’t know, some kind of collaborative partner that builds up a good relationship with a scientist, yet also maintains an healthily independent point of view? I get the feeling Dava Sobel may be an example of someone who’s walked this middle ground successfully.

            This exchange has spurred me to think about a lot of these things for the first time, so I’m just spitballing here.

          • (I know you’ll probably say “We try to be #3”, but you also draw these adversarial lines in the sand…)

  14. Wow, talk about a one-sided view. This article proves how little this journalist understands of the work and world scientists are in. There is an almost comical aspect to this article when the journalist attempts to portray themselves as a victim. I agree with the previous comments and would add that the comments portray a little bit of what Cassandra Willyard should have done prior to publishing. I would have loved to hear more of the scientists voice in all of this.

  15. Unfortunately there is a massive flaw in this story. A flaw in the argument that the journalist created that turns everything around. The journalist writes “That failure( to publish), of course, doesn’t prove that these kinds of rejections have never occurred. But it does seem to suggest that they are rare.” This statement stands at the center of the article and is deeply flawed. A lack of data never suggests rarity or the opposite. Just because you don’t find any apples in an apple tree doesn’t mean that it’s not an apple tree. You sometimes have to look closer! To be more to the point, no editor of any major publication house would ever admit to such decision-making. Think about it. If they did, they would immediately be scrutinized not just by the media but also by scientists. Consequently, the journalists question of the editor if they know of such cases is meaningless. The editor has not interest and quite frankly also no choice to say “oh yes, we don’t publish things that have been discussed in the media previously” . That would be editor suicide. The only way you could find the truth on such matters is to have an insider – a whistleblower that would actually confirm this.
    Well, I can just tell you this much: I am one of those scientists who couldn’t get a manuscript accepted because the figure was too similar to the one that was previously picked up by the media. The science journalist had taken a photograph from a poster and published it. Unfortunately the figure was essential. It made publishing significantly more difficult. So my advice for the journalists: Scientists have every interest to get their work out in the world but they are afraid of journalists that don’t seem to understand the consequences of their actions. Journalists often come across as bullies and very self-righteous. Please work with us as a team, ask us about our fears!! Unfortunately this article, while raising very good points, adds to the fear scientists hold of journalists.

    • Cassandra Willyard says:

      Send me the whistleblower! I would love to write that story. Also, tell me your fears. I’m all ears. The “working together as a team” bit is problematic because we (sometimes? often?) have different goals. I can’t give you control of the story because . . . journalism. But I will always listen. My intent with this article was not to say, “hey journalists — write anything you want about meeting presentations without any help from the scientists.” That’s not good journalism. And the example you bring up sounds shady. I would not use a figure/image without a scientist’s permission.

  16. Cassandra Willyard says:

    I ran out of reply possibilities on the previous thread, Cygnus, but can you talk more about the consequences? Say you present at a meeting and I write a story even though you asked me not too — what do you fear might happen? You mentioned tenure committees, but would they really blame you for a story that I wrote?

    • Cassandra Willyard says:

      (Also, how embarrassing that I wrote “too” instead of “to” and now have no way to edit it.)

    • I guess my concerns are kind of vague and unformed, but I’ll try to think them through.

      By the way, you were well within your rights to respond with something like “It’s not all about the consequences for YOU, Mr. selfish dude.” 🙂 We scientists need to better grok the nuances of “the public’s right to know,” but I hope we can nudge journalists into softening the sharp edges of an absolutist take on this whole “journalists have the final say” deal.

      Anyway, there are still many senior scientists who look down on their (usually younger) colleagues whose names show up in the popular media. The byline doesn’t matter… it can be a taint nonetheless. And if the content of the piece doesn’t line up with what the younger scientist says in professional settings — i.e., if the scientist is forced to say “No, that’s not what I meant to convey” — there’s an extra embarrassment factor piled on top.

      Okay, maybe the negative consequences I had in mind aren’t all that terrible. The older generation is, well, going the way of the older generation. But there are cousins of this “media taint” effect that have been more insidious. In a recent faculty job search at my institution, the top-ranked person on the selection committee’s short-list was overridden by the full faculty because she was active & outspoken in social media, outreach, and social justice. (She’s already a faculty member at a smaller school, but she really wanted to move up to a bigger one. Didn’t happen.) This certainly isn’t the fault of journalism, but it’s an illustration of the attitudes that persist behind closed doors. It wasn’t only the old graybeards voting against her.

      Now, I’ve got to get going to other faculty meetings. 🙂 I’ll check back in later today or tonight.

  17. Last comment posted before seening Cassandra’s response. I admit to not knowing what a journalist “fellow” is. But I do think scientists have cause for being a bit defensive here when reporters turn what could have been a collegial relationship into an adversarial one.

  18. Apologies if my response was brusque, but I do think the article was a bit tone-deaf about the concerns of scientists. The embargo issue isn’t the aspect that most scientists focus on, I think. I agree with Renee de Pooter’s concern about reporters (and uni press officers, too) “badly distorting” ones’ findings and running with stories that aren’t ready for prime time. It’s happened to me in the past, and I had to spend way more time than I’d planned to fight back & get some subtlety put back into the language — to avoid whiz-bang “they’ve solved everything!” conclusions. That stuff looks bad to tenure committees!

    (Note: I am confused about one thing: In the part above that said “I tried but failed to find an example of research…” that sentence is followed by a parenthetical statement that SEEMS to contradict it. It appears to describe cases in which press coverage — albeit of only images and not text? — DID hinder the publication of an embargoed paper. Still counts as something that ought to give scientists pause, though.)

    With all that said, I do disagree with de Pooter about the “profit” thing. Reporters — especially freelancers — definitely aren’t raking in the big bucks! I worry that this state of affairs produces over-eagerness in reporters who need to get a certain number of “scoops” to put food on the table, but that’s a topic for another day…

    • Cassandra Willyard says:

      You’re talking about two separate issues: 1. should reporters be allowed to report on scientific meetings? and 2. are they doing a good job? I want to keep the focus on the first one (because, yes, there will always be reporters who don’t do their due diligence. There will also always be scientists who will demand more caveats, nuance, etc. no matter how good a job we’ve done.)

      Our fundamental disagreement is this: who should decide when something is ready for publicity? You say scientists. I say that if a scientist presents research at a meeting that press is allowed to attend, that information is now public and the journalist has the right to decide whether to write a story. I’m not digging through your garbage looking for dirt! I’m sitting politely in a room full of people listening to you give a talk. I am a reporter, so I will report. (I am also a human, so if I contact you and you have concerns, I will listen and try to be helpful. This relationship rarely starts as an adversarial one.)

      Maybe you’re right about the bit in parentheses. But the image/illustration/figure question seems very different to me than issue of the findings. It’s easy to avoid republishing an image. You can refuse to give me the image. But the findings are now public because you presented them at a meeting.

      • Fair enough. I guess I’m most concerned about the case where the scientist says “Please don’t write a story about this. It’s not ready for that step.” Maybe that’s very rare? But even if the scientist just presented the work to peers at a conference, I think he/she has a right to make this request of reporters. Exposure in the popular press is a qualitatively different “thing” than scientific publication; see my remark about tenure committees above.

        I don’t see making this request as inherently adversarial. If the reporter decides to forge ahead anyway, though… gosh, that seems kind of adversarial.

        • Cassandra Willyard says:

          While I feel for scientists in this position, I think the decision to publish/not publish is in the journalist’s hands. I would, of course, try to understand the scientist’s concerns and address them, but I don’t think the scientist gets the final say. The information is out there. What is stopping someone else in the audience from discussing/publicizing the findings? If scientists feel strongly that control should be in their hands, they need to work with meeting organizers to develop clear cut rules (see the Cold Spring Harbor Lab model).

          • I fear we’re on track to agree to disagree, though I will definitely take your advice and scrutinize conference rules about journalism more closely from now on.

            I’d emphasize again that “having a story appear in the popular media without my permission” has qualitatively DIFFERENT consequences to my life than either “other scientists citing my work in their papers” or “people talking to their friends, or sharing on social media, what they just heard me say.” It’s a bit disingenuous to lump them all into the same category with “the information is out there.”

  19. Cassandra Willyard says:

    Cygnus – The researcher in question presented at a meeting that was not only open to journalists, this particular journalist was there as a journalist FELLOW. If you want to argue that journalists shouldn’t be allowed at scientific meetings, your beef is with the organizers. Don’t blame us for doing our jobs.

  20. It was most definitely not “bullying” for that scientist to say that if the reporter does a story without his permission, he would tell his colleages not to work with that reporter any more. Conference sessions ARE primarily for scientists to share & discuss their work amongst themselves. When the work is ready for prime time, they do press releases. THAT’S when reporters should get involved, not before.

  21. Cassandra, thank you for writing this piece. I think it will be very helpful for writers and scientists alike, and I plan to use the information in it to do my part in educating scientists.

    There are a lot of competing interests at play here. From a journalistic point of view, reporting from conferences can have an excitement and an immediacy often lacking in the highly managed way journals roll out peer-reviewed papers. It’s much easier to get scoops when you’re the only reporter in a room than when you’re one of thousands getting the Science or Nature press pack. These are mostly benefits for journalists (and their readers), but I feel there is a broader argument for reporting from meetings. Nearly all publicly presented scientific research is at least in part taxpayer funded, and if it isn’t, it’s almost certainly funded by a tax-exempt foundation. If science is really in the public interest and worth public funding or subsidizing — and I don’t think there is a scientist in the world who would argue otherwise — surely the public has the right to enjoy the fruits of its investment in a timely manner? It can take months or years for a paper to go through the peer-review and publication process, and often the paper is then behind a paywall. So reporting from meetings is often the best or only way to provide timely scientific information to the public.

    All that said, I can see the scientists’ point of view, that meetings are venues for sharing speculative ideas and preliminary results among peers. One time a scientist at a meeting asked me to hold off on reporting on results he had in review at a journal, not because he was concerned about breaking a possible embargo, but because he wanted to be able to incorporate the reviewers’ feedback into his final paper. Of course I could have done the story anyway, but my editors and I decided to wait. Eventually the paper came out, the scientist remembered to let me know, and we did a story. I had to take the risk that he would forget to let me know, potentially costing me a story. In general I do feel that the public’s interest in knowing the results of the research it funds outweighs the scientists’ concerns about embargoes, which as your article makes clear are often unfounded. And I think the journals should do their part by clarifying their embargo policies (or better yet, eliminating them altogether), to avoid scaring scientists and to better promote the free exchange of scientific ideas that they claim is their mission.

    To respond to de Pooter, no science journalist is in this business to profit off someone else’s work! If we were profit-driven, we would find something else to do. We are in it for the public good and because we love the work. And we have zero interest in distorting anyone’s findings — we WANT scientists’ help and input!

  22. Cassandra Willyard says:

    If you worked on something for years, why wouldn’t you want other people to know about it? You get paid to do science. We get paid to write about science. And the more you help us do our jobs, the less inaccuracy/distortion there will be. Everybody wins.

  23. Renee de Pooter says:

    As scientist, I had no idea about this. From now on, I would be very reluctant to present my data at a meeting that allows press attendance. This was a valuable warning. I can’t imagine anything more frustrating than to work on something for years, present it to what I think is a room full of peers, and then have that story be taken and used for someone else’s gain and profit, without having any final authority on how badly they distort my findings!