2011: Embargogeddon?

For many years, science journalists have worked with the embargo. In this system, institutions - usually universities, space agencies, observatories and the like - provide details of an upcoming academic paper to a group of journalists on the understanding that they won't publish the story until a particular time and date. On the whole, science journalists have stuck to embargoes as it ensures that they continue to get advance notice of future results. I've seen this system from both directions having helped put together press releases (for a project I was a scientist on) and in writing articles for this blog.

There is pressure on institution Press Officers to produce the maximum coverage in the press from any result that could be news-worthy. This stems, in part, from funding councils (particularly in the UK) which increasingly demand evidence of Impact from the scientists they fund. From this perspective, the embargo system seems to work. It allows journalists time to work on a story, rather than all rush to publish hastily researched articles when a result is released, and it tends to result in widespread coverage in the daily newspapers and TV news.

At the other end of the embargo system, an increasing number of science writers are unhappy. It can be difficult to get quotes from other scientists in the field because the embargo means that those scientists haven't seen the paper/result either. Another problem is that Press Officers tend to be focussed on the big newspapers. Those who write online can be excluded and they can have difficulty talking to the scientist(s) behind the result - highlighted by Ed Yong's recent problems with a University of Manchester Press Officer. Being left with just the contents of a press release can make the process of writing a story feel more like churnalism. Who wants to churn out an almost identical story to everyone else?

Science writers are discontent. The cracks in the system are growing rapidly. It looks as though science embargoes may be over.

Postscript: Fraser Cain's "Embargopolypse" may be easier to say than Embargogeddon. I just got carried away in the wake of Snowmageddon.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 31st Mar 2011 (07:17 BST) | Permalink

Life under pressure

The web has been buzzing over the past few days in reaction to news that evidence for extra-terrestrial life may have been found in a meteorite. Ian Musgrave has written an analysis of the paper (really a pre-print as the Journal released it for open peer review) over at his blog. In short, although Ian says the pre-print establishes that the filaments observed are not modern bacteria, it doesn't establish that they are fossil organisms. Extraordinary claims do need good evidence.

It isn't just the paper that has been getting attention though. The journal it was submitted to has found itself under the microscope and has reacted to the reaction to the pre-print. It has released a statement defending the pre-print against the "crackpots and charlatans... self-promoters, liars, and failures" that have attacked it. That is pretty unusual stuff for a journal to say and seems to be attached to anyone who disagreed with the conclusions of the pre-print. It doesn't seem like a very good peer review process if the journal reacts like that to critical reviews. Claims that "maybe the terrorists have won" is also an extreme response to the criticism (unfair or fair) that this story has generated. I can only imagine the intense pressure the editor of the journal has been under the past few days and it has obviously taken its toll.

Experiments in open peer-review should be welcomed. Publishing a rant, when angry or upset, is almost always a bad idea.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 08th Mar 2011 (23:04 GMT) | Permalink
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