Preprints, embargoes and the future of communicating science to the public – the debate continues…

16th August 2018

A blog post by Dr Claire Hastings 

I first wanted to re-ignite the embargo debate a couple of years ago after I, like many press officers, received an email from Eureka Alert saying the journal PNAS would no longer embargo a paper if any of the data was previously published on a preprint server.

Since then, Stempra has held three events on the topic – in London, Manchester and Edinburgh – and it’s clear the community is split on whether they think preprints and the absence of embargoes are a good or bad thing, or simply not a threat.

Some press officers are happy not to bother with an embargo, to issue for immediate release and see what coverage they get. The absence of an embargo is only really a threat to widespread coverage for a small minority of newsworthy research papers. They argue it is possible to get coverage if the story is strong enough. Some also think an embargo in a situation where data is available on a preprint online server is disingenuous and risky.

Others, especially me (apologies for past rants), think you should be able to embargo a study even if there is similar data on a preprint server. The data is not peer reviewed and it is not in a format that is meant for the eyes of anyone other than scientists, especially not journalists or the general public. The risk of the data being found by a journalist is very low, and the reward potential is high. Journalists don’t have time to escape the daily churn and search through these servers. Most of the time they don’t even look at a release until the day the embargo lifts. Also, very few journalists’ would be willing to break a journal’s embargo, even if they did find bits of the data on a preprint (or even if they had previously written about at a conference!).

Having to issue for immediate release absolutely does hinder the opportunity to achieve widespread coverage. Even if you could pull it off, the practice encourages quick and dirty reporting on the subject, your scientist would have to do back to back interviews all day (if you can pull it off), you’d have to prioritise which outlets to target (and I bet your scientists wouldn’t want to prioritise the Mail and The Sun even though they reach the widest audience), print publications would be at a huge disadvantage having to follow the story and look late to the party (or just not run it)… It’s a hot mess.

KPIs aside, not being able to embargo therefore limits the dissemination of science to the general public, and increases the likelihood the story will be a hack job with less time devoted to getting the accuracy, nuance and balance correct.

That is in the best interest of no one.

But, and I cannot stress enough, scientists who publish on preprint servers are not to blame.

There are much wider problems here, some of which are the reason I am no longer a scientist

  • The way in which success in science is measured

Success in science relies on being able to publish your work and in as high impact a journal as possible. It creates an aggressive race between competitors, which in turn leads to an oppressive level of pressure on the scientific workforce. Some journals take a very long time to publish, so if they want to get their data out early, to beat their competitors or even just for public/scientific good, there’s a huge draw to put data up on a pre-print server. Publishing early on a preprint server may even have the added benefit of dissuading your competitors from pursuing your specific avenue of research, avoiding direct competition and ‘waste’ of money/resources

There are measures being taken to address competition and waste, eg a focus on #teamscience, collaborating with competitors to get big papers, a push for recognition for ‘middle’ authors in eg the REF data – but there needs to be that systemic change, which is slow to catch on.

  • There is a wide disparity in the approach to publication between journals

Some journals take a long time to publish even after acceptance and only publish formatted proofs; some post the uncorrected manuscript online at the point of acceptance.  Some journals will happily give you an embargo to work from; some ‘forget’ you asked for one and you’re left surprised when you see the paper online. But then some journals will offer to give you an embargo for the final copy because they know the uncorrected proofs aren’t an ideal source even though they’ve decided to publish it. Some papers you just never find out about until they’re online because your scientists didn’t know to tell you at the point of submission, and acceptance is just too late these days. And of course there’s post-publication review…

The journals that take a long time to publish tend to be the high impact journals. There’s a lot of scope for scooping a competitor if they are submitting to one of those journals. Also, huge delays to publication slows down progress – especially not good for clinical translation of research.

  • There is hypocrisy in the system, especially regarding embargoes

In 2016 we press officers received an email from Eureka saying that PNAS had taken the decision to no longer embargo a study if the data was already published on a preprint server. Alarm bells rang, and I proposed to my fellow Stempra committee members that we run an event to discuss the ‘threat of preprint servers.’

But maybe it’s not the preprints, and rather the decision-making of journals, that we should be discussing.

Why is it OK to embargo a study that has had mass media coverage when it was presented at a conference, but not one that has been on a preprint server?

Journalists regularly write up stories at the point of publication when they have already written the near-identical story when it was presented at a conference.

If journalists don’t mind sticking to an embargo that ignores publicly available, lay-interpreted data they have already written about, why would they not stick to a journal embargo about a study where only some of the early data, that hadn’t been transcribed for a lay audience, that was published on a pre-print server?

As I mentioned before, data on preprint servers are only for the eyes of other scientists and not intended for journalists or the lay public.

The ONLY purpose of the embargo in this case is for journalists to know they are all aiming for the same deadline. It’s not for the benefit of scientists – rest assured they are already talking to other scientists about their work.

The decision by PNAS does not make logical sense, showed lack of understanding of what an embargo is used for, or how the media works and a clear preference towards conference presentations over preprints. I implore other journals not to follow suit.

  • Why are some journals dictating/disrupting/endangering/prohibiting the flow of scientific research findings to other scientists and to the public?

I have regularly dealt with journals who ‘forgot’ to email their production team our intention to press release and request for notification of the embargo, resulting in the article just appearing online. Should that mean the public don’t get the opportunity to hear about an important piece of scientific research? Of course there are many other factors that restrict whether a story makes the news. But it shouldn’t be the journal.

If it’s publicly funded or in the public interest, the public – every demographic, wherever they choose to receive their news – deserve the opportunity to find out about the research. If this requires an embargo for widespread dissemination, I’d argue journals are morally obliged to provide one.

What can we do about it?

I have a few proposed solutions for the various players in the academic, publishing and communications communities that are worth discussing:

  • Preprint operators – could we password protect these so only scientists who understand the data can see they data, perhaps using a system like eduroam? I realise this is a longshot and would an extra level of administration but it is for the greater good. The data on preprint servers isn’t meant for public consumption.

  • Scientists and press officers – try to dissuade any journalists who have dug up your data on a preprint server from writing a piece on it. Very few journalists will be able to interpret the data and the significance, and if they can’t get quotes from the authors they won’t have a legit story. Tell them to wait until it’s published and then you’ll happily work with them, or even give them something extra they can use since they showed such enthusiasm for your research. Or give them another exclusive story as a bargaining chip. It might not always work, but most journalists are very reasonable people and value your relationship.

  • Journals – I implore you to realise the power you have over the widespread dissemination of scientific research, take responsibility for it, and please come together and come up with a consensus. But be aware deciding never to embargo anything that has ever been online before would be hugely damaging to the flow of scientific information to the general public. You should be taking an active role in increasing public awareness of the importance of science and the scientific method, not becoming a barrier to it.

Stempra has been debating the merits of the embargo for more than a decade (if not longer), and it’s not likely to end anytime soon. Preprints have added a new dimension to the debate, and brought in new players – but the premise remains the same. You need an embargo to give journalists time to work up a story and make a good job of it, and to make sure the story reaches a wide audience, especially people who might not be exposed to new research findings otherwise.

Science is slowly changing and becoming more open, and I hope we can work together to ensure that change doesn’t have to mean the communication of science suffers.

Dr Hastings states the views expressed in this article are her own and not those of any organisation she is affiliated with.

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