Publicity without scrutiny: journals’ media embargoes under fire

Issuing press releases without allowing access to the original research criticised by UK politicians

March 30, 2017
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The issuing of press releases about academic research that is not openly available impedes fact-checking and public debate, it has been warned.

MPs on the UK’s science and technology committee said that they took a “dim view” of the issuing of press releases without allowing access to the full peer-reviewed reports, having heard evidence that publishers were using embargoes as “news management” tools in such cases.

The panel’s latest report, Science communication and engagement, cites evidence from AlphaGalileo, a science news service, which describes the use of embargoes and the lack of access to the original research as a “frequent problem”.

“We receive embargoes of a few hours, and embargoed releases where the paper on which the release is based is not [made] accessible to the media by the peer-reviewed journal until after the embargo has lifted,” AlphaGalileo says in its written evidence. “Both of these practices reduce the ability of the media to do its job properly. In these cases, it appears that the embargo is being used as news management by peer-reviewed journals.”

In their report, the MPs say that, while the embargo system “should reduce inaccuracies in news reporting”, in fact journalists’ role in scrutinising scientific developments “is often made more difficult” by it.

In its evidence, Imperial College London says that some of the drawbacks of the embargo system “could be addressed if press releases and the journal papers on which they are based were required to be publicly available and linked from online news reports as part of the embargo contract”.

Felicity Mellor, senior lecturer in science communication at Imperial, told Times Higher Education that journals should make research papers available to journalists, “regardless of whether they’re open access”.

“There needs to be a quid pro quo,” Dr Mellor said. “Journals and universities benefit from the embargo system because it helps them secure publicity, but there needs to be a comparable benefit for the public interest.

“At the moment, the embargo system is encouraging ‘science boosterism’ rather than supporting the questioning stance that should be central to both science and journalism.”

Dr Mellor said she would “go further” and publish referees’ reports with the paper to allow identification of its “possible limitations and weaknesses”.

Elsewhere, the report says that while it is “not unreasonable” for policymakers to “weight scientific evidence to a lesser or greater extent”, where they “do not follow the evidence directly”, “they must ensure that they do not dismiss or discredit legitimate scientific evidence”.

“It is the government’s responsibility to ensure [that] trade-off decisions between what the science says, what is affordable and legal, and ultimately what the public will accept are transparent,” the MPs say.

john.elmes@timeshighereducation.com

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