Embargoes? I’m not talking about it…

Nope. Not a word. Even though, in a sense, I’ve already talked about it, albeit briefly. Instead, I’m going to talk about the bafflement that’s apparent over press embargoes and what constitutes “public domain”. Am I grabbing the wrong end of the stick here? Or are half the science bloggers in the world missing something? Logically, I’d have to believe I’m the one who’s mistaken, but… after looking at this in detail I’m at a loss to see the how or why.

The matter of press embargoes seems to be a sticky one, at best. Seeing as I’ve thus far not had much cause to communicate with the press (at least in a research capacity), it seems wise to understand the situation with embargos. The basic idea is simple. Send out a press release with an embargo until a set date. The media may then have time to prepare a story, but may not publicise it until the given date (and are professionally obliged not to). Simple, right? Well…

This afternoon, the first utterance I heard about this was on Scienceblogs.com’s Dynamics of Cats. He wasn’t talking about it either. In keeping with the cat-based theme, this piqued my curiosity somewhat, so I followed his link to a post by Cosmic Variance’s Julianne. Nor was she talking about it. But she (and a number of commenters) were bemoaning the embargoing system employed by journals like Nature. This eventually led back to Uncertain Principles not talking about it, but rather questioning the whole affair. Sometimes, the science blogosphere is like a big detective story waiting to happen…

(Note, incidentally, that I’m not even referencing specific blog posts here. Not talking about it.)

Personally, the snippets of information I draw from all of this are thus:

…our cardinal rule has always been to promote scientific communication. We have therefore never sought to prevent scientists from presenting their work at conferences, or from depositing first drafts of submitted papers on preprint servers. So if Nature journalists or those from any other publication should hear results presented at a meeting, or find them on a preprint server, the findings are fair game for coverage — even if that coverage is ahead of the paper’s publication. This is not considered a breaking of Nature’s embargo. Nor is it a violation if scientists respond to journalists’ queries in ensuring that the facts are correct — so long as they don’t actively promote media coverage.

A Nature editorial on science blogging regarding Nature’s embargo policy

So Nature themselves are saying that picking something up from a preprint server and discussing it isn’t breaking an embargo at all. In fact, seemingly, the only people able to break the embargo are the authors. And even they may speak freely if questioned. The embargo is only considered broken if they actively incite media coverage. That’s interesting.

“Anyone who posts to arxiv with a note “under embargo” is mis-informed. It is *not* under embargo any longer — it is legally published and in the public domain. Please inform me (astronomy editor, Nature) immediately if an author posts with a note “under embargo” and I will tell them that it most definitely is not under embargo.

Authors can post to arxiv at any time, at their convenience. I know our “Guide to Authors” is horribly written and confusing — sorry, but I’ve been unable to get it changed. Again, contact me for clarification.”

— Comment from Leslie Sage, Astronomy Editor at Nature (Left on a post on one of the blogs I’ve linked to above)

In essence, by posting their preprint to arXiv, the authors have actually broken their own embargo. This tends to make me agree with Uncertain Principles. Is it really sensible for scientists to race to arXiv to be the first to post their preprint? It seems a little silly really. Effectively, a preprint is publishing it to the world, after all. Disconcertingly, so is a blog when you actually think about it.

So in other words, I am, in fact, allowed to talk about it. I would be breaking no rules by doing so, even inspite of what the rest of the science blogosphere seems to believe. But now I don’t want to. It’s not even my sub-field, and I’d rather not accidentally break any embargoes despite the fact that, apparently, I wouldn’t be doing so. Would I…?

I’m so confused…

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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