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Sanctioned Secrecy: EurekAlert!

Naniette Coleman's picture

Is secrecy the anti-thesis of transparency or an important tool in a reformist’s toolbox? In a world struggling for transparency is there a role for secrecy.  A number of reputable medical and science journals including the Journal of American Medicine (JAMA), the New England Journal of Medicine and Science magazine seem to think so. They have been practicing the fine art of secrecy since their inception. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, "Triple A-S" (AAAS), an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world and publisher of Science magazine, is even in on it. In fact, Triple A-S created a website to help further the cause of secrecy, more commonly called embargoed news. The site is EurekAlert! and it is currently available in both English and Chinese

 

Established in 1996, EurekAlert! is an online, global news service which provides a central place through which universities, medical centers, journals, government agencies, corporations and other organizations engaged in research can bring their news to the media. The idea behind the site was to take advantage of the emerging internet; to try to communicate science as broadly as possible; to level the playing field and to bring science to reporters and to the public across developed and developing regions alike. EurekAlert! seems to be living up to its mandate, to date the main English site serves 7,300 registered reporters in 60 different countries, with research from 900 different research organizations and 12 peer review journals. In 2008, AAAS, also added a Chinese language site, Chinese.EuerkAlert.org.

 

The piece of EurekAlert! that I find the most fascinating and might have great use in the developing world is its embargoed news practice. Qualified, credentialed reporters and freelancers can access embargoed and breaking news, peer-reviewed journals, experts and other valuable resources through EurekAlert! also. 

 

Example of An Embargo Order

Under Science's current embargo policy, Science normally distributes research to journalists one week prior to its publication. Science's embargo policy is designed to uphold the integrity of the peer-review process, to protect author confidentiality, and to ensure that the public receives the highest quality and most accurate scientific information in a timely manner.

 

In order to ensure accurate reporting on the forthcoming xxx paper, Science will lift the embargo on this paper at 10 A. M. U.S. ET, Tuesday, 3 August 2010, when all materials are available. To obtain these materials when they become available, please e-mail xxxxxxxx@aaas.org or call 202-xxx-xxxx. Reporters will be able to access the materials through EurekAlert! (http://www.eurekalert.org)

 

The principal investigators will have the opportunity to tell the full story of their research at 11 A.M. U.S. ET, Tuesday, 3 August 2010, during a press conference at xxxxx Headquarters, Washington, D.C. For information, call xxxx, 202-xxx-xxxx. Plans are being made to allow reporters to phone and listen to the conference.

 

Embargoed news is a hot topic right now, not quite as hot as WikiLeaks (a more radical tool in a reformists tool kit), but a valuable tool nonetheless. Embargoed news is so hot, in fact, that there are entire websites dedicated to it, Embargo Watch being my favorite. According to Ivan Oransky, the executive editor of Reuters Health and founder of Embargo Watch, in his inaugural blog “Why write a blog on embargoes?” "journals use services such as Eurekalert.org, to release material to journalists before it is officially published. Reporters agree not to publish anything based on those studies until that date, and in return they get more time to read the studies and obtain comments.” What this amounts to is reporters get more time to prepare, the science community gets greater coverage due to the demand created from embargoing, the science community also builds stronger bonds with the media through the process, and the public gets news that is more robust, seems like a win-win-win. 

 

With obvious benefits at hand, and of course, drawbacks, there are a few things that reform minded individuals and organizations in the developing world might want to keep in mind as they consider the practice of embargoing news: 

 

  1. Use the embargo process to gain the attention of journalists and build relationships with them. 
  2. According to Embargo Watch, embargoes give the embargoing institution power. They ratchet up the interest in the material, and make it more likely that news organizations will cover it.
  3. Some news outlets will not abide by embargoes unless they are exclusive
  4. Know when to rescind an embargo. If, for instance, a strong tie in can be made between your story and another and you stick to your embargo your story might end up on the cutting room floor.
  5. The adage, whatever bleeds leads is one you should not take lightly. If another story bleeds more than yours does, you may risk no news coverage. Again, know when to rescind your embargo.
  6. If information leaks from one news outlet, you may need to rescind your embargo otherwise you run the risk of only receiving coverage on the leaked information. Again, know when to rescind your embargo. 
  7. An embargo could potentially make it easier for a journalist to plan their work and determine the importance of a story. 
  8. Consider coupling the end of your embargo with an event or press conference to discuss the details and answer questions.
  9. Always have a contingency plan for if/when your embargoed information leaks.  
  10. Recognize that if you are not a permanent player embargo rules may not apply. 
  11. Take the time to get to know journalists well before you stake the success of your endeavor on their ethics. 

 

Ironically, even the founder of WikiLeaks and king of radical transparency, Julian Assange, has something to say about embargoes. In an interview with ComputerWorld last year he said the following: “It’s counterintuitive. You would think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that is absolutely, not true. It is about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero. The embargo period is a key part of the plan, When WikiLeaks releases material without writing its own story or finding people who will, it gains little attention.” Julian practices what he preaches. Prior to wider release the 96,000 documents posted on WikiLeaks website earlier this week were offered to the New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel under embargo. 

 Photo courtesy of Flickr user John Bollwit

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