The Reluctant Scientist: When Meeting Presenters Get Cold Feet

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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that researchers’ reluctance seems to vary somewhat by field—biomedical researchers tend to be more wary of releasing unpublished results than astronomers or physicists.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.


* Correction 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. 


Cassandra Willyard
Cassandra Willyard Maureen Cassidy

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.

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