What are embargoes? How do journals and peer review work

Scientific studies are regularly published in various scientific journals. Science journalists who have contacted the journal and registered have prior access to them under an embargo that they undertake to respect. This is an advantageous system, but it is not without its critics.

23/03/2022 - 13:30 CET

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The research community publishes its results in scientific journals such as Science, Nature, Cell, The Lancet and JAMA, often after going through a process known as “peer review”, in which two or three reviewers who are experts in the matter in question and have not been involved in the research assess the rigour and novelty of the article, as well as its scientific relevance and appropriateness to the journal’s subject matter, to decide whether it deserves to be published in the magazine.

Prior to publication, studies can be shared by the authors in repositories such as medRxiv, bioRxiv and arXiv. These preliminary papers are known as preprints, have not passed peer review and can be uploaded with few or no controls. They should therefore be treated with the utmost caution.

Peer review is not a guarantee of quality, irrefutability or that the conclusions of the study are a revealed truth. It does indicate that the journal editors and two or three reviewers have deemed the work worthy of dissemination to the academic community for discussion.

Scientific studies are regularly published in various scientific journals. Science journalists who have contacted the journal and registered have prior access to them under an embargo that they agree to respect. This allows them to work in advance on the papers (scientific research) to be covered and to talk to their authors and other independent researchers.

There are two major platforms that work with embargoes: Eurekalert! and Springer Nature (which includes the journals of the Nature group). Both offer papers, press releases, researcher contacts, artwork and even press conferences in advance.

Although the system is not without its critics, respecting embargoes is part of the job of the science journalist. Violation of embargoes can result in the loss of access to the platforms that provide them.

Advantages and disadvantages of the embargo system

The embargo system in science journalism is designed, in principle, to give journalists access to information about upcoming science news publications in sufficient advance for them to do their job properly. In other words: the embargo should allow them to produce their own content in a way that is rigorous and attractive for the general public, without any rush, interviewing the authors of the articles, and cross-checking with other independent sources that assess the news.

So why is it criticised?

The system generates complaints whenever a journalist ‘skips’ the embargo, since the others have agreed to respect the times even if they already know the information; but there are reservations that go beyond such specific cases.

Critics argue that embargoes make it possible to fill pages by making science journalism totally reactive, passive. Media without a well-staffed science editorial staff or with precarious conditions can supply themselves with science content just by translating or directly copying press releases.

As a consequence, uncritical science journalism could be encouraged, fed only by press releases produced by the communication technicians of research centres and journals, which are very useful and informative materials, but are always partial information.

Moreover, there has also been much criticism of the fact that the research centres and scientific journals themselves, by deciding which research merits press releases, should be setting the agenda for science journalists.

In short, criticisms of the embargo system are related to the risk they pose in a publishing market in crisis and with problems of precariousness in the sector. In these conditions, instead of serving as a tool that helps to improve science journalism, it may discourage the proactive pursuit of original stories, which are the ones that enrich journalism.

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