Science reporting's dark secret

A cosy embargo system is bad news for science coverage - and correspondents too, argues David Whitehouse
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As a science journalist I know of several important science stories that will soon make headlines but I can't tell you about them. Just like thousands of science journalists all over the world I have agreed to put aside my instincts to get the story out as soon as possible, preferably before anyone else, and sit on them, sometimes for over a week. This is because many, though not all, journals that publish scientific research operate an embargo system. It involves sending out details to journalists provided they agree not to publish anything about them until the embargoed time.

On the face of it this seems reasonable but there is a growing feeling that the embargo system is a thing of the past. Some are stronger in their concerns about it, seeing it as a pernicious interference in the process of science and in the flow of information between scientists and the public who pay their wages. It is something that journalists should not do but we all do, willingly, because we have no choice if we want to stay plugged into the journals output and its steady stream of stories. No other area of journalism has such a cosy and secretive arrangement.

Because of this and other factors science journalism is in something of a crisis. With the embargo system and the arrival of the internet it's easy to churn out story after story, usually without leaving your desk.

The result of this is that science coverage can be indistinguishable across outlets. The quick communication and comp-arisons made possible by the internet has resulted in a uniform blandness of science reporting. Many science reporters would like to break out of this but cannot lest they get a call from their editor asking why so-and-so has a such-and-such second-rate a story and you didn't.

Some journalists like the embargo system, though it encourages lazy reporting and props up poor correspondents. We have many fine science reporters in the UK but there are some poor ones that do little else but reproduce press releases and embargoed copy. Scoops, what every journalist should want, are few and far between in science as the embargo process militates against them.

Embargoes are one of the reasons why in some Sunday newspapers you see such daft science stories, over hyped and strained beyond their credibility. Many journals which come out at the end of the week won't let Sunday journalists in on the system, too much temptation to bust an embargo they say.

It results in the Sundays sometimes being off beam and sometimes being spectacular and doing what journalists should do. It was The Observer, outside the embargo system, that got the scoop about Dolly the cloned sheep in 1997 even though thousands of other journalists worldwide already had the press release but couldn't talk about it for another four days.

Journals say the embargo is a good thing. They say it creates a level playing field among journalists and concentrates attention on serious research that has been approved by other scientists. They add that it allows journalists time to work on their reports, carry out filming and interviews, so that they get the science right. All this is self-serving poppycock and patronising to boot.

What good journalist wants a level playing field? Journalists, if they are up to the job, are hunters wanting to get the best stories for their outlets first and are used to producing accurate reports to tight deadlines and when it comes to "getting the science right," they don't need such help.

What the embargo system does do is act as a marketing tool for the journals allowing them to maximise publicity and thus be a bigger draw for advertisers and therefore profits. The bottom line is that most science journals do not exist for the high moral purpose of fostering good science but to make money for their owners. It is a scandal that research that has been funded by the taxpayer is manipulated for the commercial interests of a private company or international consortium.

Many scientists also dislike embargoes and resent being unable to talk to a journalist about their work if they subsequently want to submit it to a journal because it will be rejected if it has already been aired in the media no matter how good it is. Journals and the private companies behind them have no business telling scientists who they can and cannot talk to or old their careers hostage this way.

The problem with the embargo system and the key to its longevity is that despite being morally wrong many people benefit from it and no journal wants to be the first to abandon it. But if they all did it would improve the communication of science between scientists and the public. Science journalists would benefit as it would not tie them to their inboxes in fear they might miss an embargoed story that others will cover. The result would be better journalism.

The writer is a former BBC science correspondent