An open letter to press officers who won’t promote unembargoed research papers

Author’s note

While this letter is addressed to press officers who won’t promote research papers that cannot be embargoed, it raises an important issue that scientists should understand. A news embargo ensures that certain information is not made public until an agreed upon time. Some scholarly publishers use embargoes to keep newly accepted research papers out of the public sphere until they are published, allowing only a handful of people (such as authors, press officers and journalists) to see the material in the interim. One often-cited aim is to facilitate thorough reporting of the research. But more and more publishers today post all accepted papers online immediately. Most press officers will still promote those papers to the media, even though the news cannot be embargoed. But others will not.
Dear press officer who won’t promote unembargoed research papers,
 
I know we haven’t met and it’s upsetting when strangers wag their fingers, so let me begin with a bit about how much we have in common.
 
I wear multiple hats here at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. My primary job is as editor of this magazine. I also am the media contact for the ASBMB’s three scientific journals and annual meeting. Before coming here, I was a press officer at a university on the science beat. Before that, I was a newspaper journalist. I’ve pitched stories, and I’ve been pitched stories.
 
You probably can see, then, that you and I have shared goals. We are committed to spreading the word about scientific discoveries that have been hard fought and may one day change or save lives. We have the courage to reveal our own wonder and ignorance to scientific experts with the hope that the answers to our questions will increase scientific literacy. We want to showcase the expertise and creativity of researchers, because it’s what we’re paid to do, scientists aren’t very good at doing it themselves, we like helping people and we’re good at it. Most importantly, we want to tell stories that others will share and remember.
 
I promise: I get you. I respect you. And that’s why I have to tell you that you’re disappointing me. Your refusal to promote research papers that cannot be embargoed is undermining the researchers you represent, devaluing their work and diminishing your profession.

Papers in press

ASBMB journals accept dozens of submissions every week, and each acceptance letter asks researchers to contact me if they’re going to work with their institutional press office on a release. I get queries every day from press officers wondering about embargoes, and I explain to each the ASBMB in-press policy: All accepted papers are published online immediately, putting them in the public sphere and making them ineligible for embargo. I tell them, usually in these very words, “I know this makes your job more difficult, but it’s good for science.”
 
Some press officers get it, and sometimes I get a disappointing reply, like this one: “The press office will not consider a paper for a press release after it publishes.”
 
While I cannot speak for all journals that immediately publish accepted papers online (and there are many of them), I can tell you that the ASBMB views its authors as its primary customers. Those customers are scientists at universities, federal agencies and research institutes. In other words, those authors are the people that you, as a press officer, represent.
 
The scientific community clamors for the rapid dissemination of research results. Put simply, the hope is to facilitate the quick production of more discoveries. The in-press policy clearly was fashioned in response to that din. Publishers are meeting your people’s needs.
 
While researchers – both journal authors and those scientists reading their papers – are the primary beneficiaries of the in-press policy, the public benefits too. They also can access these hot-off-the-virtual-presses results right away. And that’s great, because, after all, they paid for federally funded research with their taxes.

The problem for press officers

I can think of several reasons you might not want to write about an unembargoed paper. Among the most compelling:
  • • Reading a paper, interviewing the authors, composing, checking facts, rewriting, editing and collecting media takes time. Embargoes give you that time.
  • • You cannot promote every paper your scientists churn out, so you prioritize. Embargoed papers, as noted above, are relatively convenient.
  • • The reporters you pitch to might ignore an unembargoed news release. That means you’ll have fewer media placements to report to your researcher and, importantly, your boss.
I concede all three points. Your job is more intellectually challenging and time consuming than most people, including scientists and journalists, realize. You are burning calories like crazy running around your campus, donning bunny suits to get into the clean rooms and glad-handing politicians visiting new research centers. Some (overworked or lazy) reporters will disregard your unembargoed press release. Yes, writing about an unembargoed paper puts you at a disadvantage.
 
But you can and, in many cases, should do it anyway.

It’s the story that counts

Here are my recommendations:
  • • Don’t operate under a false construct. The primary criterion for a press release is news value. That a paper has been put in the public sphere does not diminish its news value.
  • • Don’t undermine your researchers. They’ve worked hard to figure out whatever it is that they’ve figured out. For all you know, they’ve worked on that project for decades. Passing on their story is hardly the reward they deserve for wanting the scientific community to know about their findings right away.
  • • Don’t overestimate journalists. Trust me, most of them are not trolling journal websites to see which papers have just been accepted and published online. They’re lucky to have you to do the digging.
  • • Don’t underestimate the importance of your work. I don’t have to tell you how influential press officers are to the news cycle, but it is worth emphasizing. You’ve seen (and not taken credit for) plenty of media reports that were conspicuously cribbed from your press releases.
  • • Don’t become complacent. You’re a storyteller. That’s why you got into this business in the first place. Stretch yourself. You know that a great story trumps timeliness any day and that many times the real story isn’t even the result of the study. Tell the story right, and nobody will care that the paper isn’t under embargo.
I hope that you can acknowledge that I might have a point. All I ask is that the next time a researcher with a new unembargoed paper requests a press release you actually read the paper and ask a few questions. You never know. There might be a great story there.
 
Best,
Angela Hopp
Editor, ASBMB Today
 
Angela HoppAngela Hopp (ahopp@asbmb.org) is editor of ASBMB Today.

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