How embargoes happen

I’m working on a press release for a paper. I think it could be big news – and if it’s not then it could well be that I’ve mucked up the explanation.

What will probably happen is when the authors of the paper are happy with the press release, we’ll schedule it with an embargo. This doesn’t always happen. Authors hate embargoes. They’ve worked for ages on a paper and they want to see people talking about it now. They might say they don’t want an embargo and take their chances with the press. Many journalists don’t like embargoes. They stop stories going live as soon as they’re finished. Worse, if they’re broken then the news sites honouring the embargo are at a disadvantage. We’re not keen on embargoes either. If someone has a story about one of our papers we’d like to see it out there. We also make the paper free access, because we want to make sure that people can talk about it. So if no one likes embargoes why do we use them? It’s because of what journals and journalists like.

How does information get locked away? Image: elhombredenegro/Flickr

Journals like coverage of papers. From an ego point of view coverage in all news sites would be best. In reality coverage in one quality news site is enough. What we want is to get word out that we’ve published an interesting paper with broad appeal. That doesn’t mean just the top traditional news sites. If Boing Boing or Ars Technica ran with the story that would be a big win. They both have quality science coverage and that’s the important thing. Quantity of coverage is not a target, it’s quality of coverage.

Journalists like exclusives, or at least the good ones do. Science stories should be a good source of exclusives, because original research should be nowhere else. So why do so many journals put out releases with embargoes instead of supplying exclusives? It’s partly because it’s a risky strategy.

I don’t live in London so the chances of me bumping into a science journalist are zero. I can contact them through social media or email, but if I say I’ve got a story that could interest them as an exclusive then they, quite reasonably, are going to ask for information about it. I provide the information and then one of two things happen. The best result is they run with it. We’re both happy.

But they might decide it’s not such an exciting story after all. It’s perfectly feasible. Maybe I’m too close to the subject so I over-estimate its importance. Maybe I haven’t explained it why it is big news properly. Maybe they’re having an off-day. If you’ve approached a journalist because you think they have good judgement, it’s a bit silly to be sour if they exercise it, even if it’s not the way you like. My problem is then it’s difficult to offer the same information to another journalist as an exclusive. The more confident I am that this is a story the less happy I am about calling it ‘exclusive’ if I think another journalist can pull a lot of extra background info from the wastepaper bin.

So instead of offering the story to one person, the safer option is to issue a press release, but this has its own problems.

If I put up a release without an embargo, it will be cut ‘n’ pasted by a dozen sites. Also the (small) number of releases we’ve put out without embargoes suggests that this is a big disincentive for coverage. The best journalists will want to dig deeper into the story and verify what is being claimed. Maybe they’ll add more context. But all of this has to happen while the story is out there and getting stale. What they need is lead time to gather the information.

And that’s how (some) embargoes happen.

Image: Crackers by elhombredenegro/Flickr. [cc]by[/cc]

Alun Salt

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.

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