Emily LakdawallaMar 19, 2015

LPSC 2015: "Bloggers, please do not blog about this talk."

"Bloggers, please do not blog about this talk."

That's how Dawn Framing Camera team leader Andreas Nathues began his talk, the second of three on the first photos of Ceres by Dawn that opened up Tuesday morning's session on Ceres at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. I looked around. There were at least four hundred people in the room, all of us scientists, some of us journalists, and many of us also bloggers. A dozen or more of us (professional scientists and journalists both) wore yellow ribbons on our badges that identified us as "microbloggers," a group of people who had agreed to share news from the conference widely on social media in exchange for access to a fast and reliable wireless network.

In fact, LPSC, more than any other science conference that I attend, has embraced social media as a way to extend its reach. Among major planetary science conferences, they do the least to give journalists special handling distinct from scientists, and the most to empower scientists to take on the role of journalists. Scientists sitting in the sessions are tweeting volumes about the ongoing, as-yet-unpublished work of other scientists. Professional journalists sit in sessions, not in choreographed press conferences, taking notes on scientific presentations. So Nathues' prohibition was confusing. It wasn't clear what he meant by "bloggers." Just the officially designated LPSC microbloggers? Scientists who write blogs? Professional journalists composing online articles? Everyone in the room who used social media?

All of the professional space journalists who attended LPSC were at Nathues' talk to see the newest images from Ceres. Clearly, those journalists didn't feel confined by Nathues' prohibition. Eric Hand posted a story on Science's website almost immediately, and Alex Witze was close behind at Nature. It amused me that writeups appeared at those two sites first. Although Nathues didn't say why he didn't want people writing about his talk, the reason scientists usually try to limit media attention is because they are afraid that if a news story appears on their work, the scientist will then not be able to publish that work in Science or Nature. This fear of prior publication relates to something called the Ingelfinger Rule, which I wrote about a few years ago.

Yesterday I wrote to Nathues to ask him to clarify what he meant by his prohibition against blogging. He confirmed to me that his prohibition "was related to the embargo." As such, he was wrong to prohibit blogging. Both Science and Nature expressly permit scientists to present their work at conferences, and state that media reports relating to conference presentations will not influence decisions regarding publication. Here are the relevant portions of the Science and Nature embargo policies regarding work being presented at scientific conferences:

From Science:

What is Science's press embargo policy? Can I provide data to other scientists or government agencies? Can I present my work at a scientific meeting?

Science's press embargo policy is designed to ensure broad and accurate coverage of authors' published research by the press. Here are some guidelines:

  • Science strongly encourages scientists to share data or results with colleagues and officials in response to health, safety, environmental, or other emergencies. Our press embargo is not intended to interfere with the normal dissemination of information between researchers and government officials as is necessary to ensure that the best and most current data are available to advise policy and decision making. Any resulting press coverage will in no way affect our decision on a paper.
  • Scientists are welcome to present their results of their submitted or upcoming Science papers to colleagues at professional meetings and to share data with colleagues. Presentation at a meeting will in no way affect a decision on a manuscript. If your paper has been accepted for publication in Science and you are planning to make a presentation, we ask that you inform the AAAS Office of Public Programs (202-326-6440).
  • Comments to press reporters attending your scheduled session at a professional meeting should be limited to clarifying the specifics of your presentation. In such situations, we ask that you do not expand beyond the content of your talk or give copies of the paper, data, overheads, or slides to reporters.
  • No news coverage of your paper can appear anywhere before 2:00 p.m. Eastern U.S. Time on the Thursday before your paper's publication. Thus:
    • Scientists with papers pending at Science should not give interviews on the work until the week before publication, and then only if the journalist agrees to abide by the Science embargo.
    • Please do not participate in news conferences until after 1:00 p.m. Eastern U.S. Time the day before publication.

From Nature:

Communication between scientists

Nature does not wish to hinder communication between scientists. For that reason, different embargo guidelines apply to work that has been discussed at a conference or displayed on a preprint server and picked up by the media as a result. (Neither conference presentations nor posting on recognized preprint servers constitute prior publication.)

Our guidelines for authors and potential authors in such circumstances are clear-cut in principle: communicate with other researchers as much as you wish, but do not encourage premature publication by discussion with the press (beyond a formal presentation, if at a conference).

This advice may jar with those (including most researchers and all journalists) who see the freedom of information as a good thing. But it embodies a longer-term view: that publication in a peer-reviewed journal is the appropriate culmination of any piece of original research, and an essential prerequisite for public discussion.

As you can see, both journals are very clear that scientists should not seek out media attention on work being considered for publication, nor should they respond to journalist questions beyond clarifying statements made in public. But as long as scientists do not seek out attention from the media, they are not punished for what happens when journalists hear their conference talks. (I was careful not to put Nathues into a difficult situation; in my email I did not ask him any questions about the scientific results he presented, because for him to reply to such a question would be to violate these embargo policies.)

Embargoes cannot be unilateral. An embargo is an agreement between two people, a kind of a non-disclosure agreement. One person offers to provide information to the other, provided that the other agrees not to disclose the information until a certain time or until certain conditions have been met. I participate in such agreements all the time. You can't give a speech in public to hundreds of people and unilaterally impose an embargo on all of them. You can ask people to keep quiet, but the only reliable way to keep a secret is not to tell it in the first place.

There's nothing that requires me to abide by Nathues' admonition not to blog, and his reasoning for asking people not to rests on a false premise. Still, he did ask, so I've been struggling for two days with what to do about that, given that what he presented is undoubtedly the most sensational thing I saw at LPSC. I had the same problem at the Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in 2011, when Bruno Sicardy told the audience to keep his presentation on Eris' diameter a secret. Initially, I abided by his request, until I discovered that the sensational result that he announced -- that Eris' diameter was indistinguishable from Pluto's -- had been online for months, in his published conference abstract!

Out of respect for Nathues' wishes, and despite the incorrect premise, I would abide by the request in this case, if articles on his talk weren't already on so many prominent news websites. But the secret is out, and my silence will do nothing to keep it in, while my writing will (I think) help people to understand what he said better.

I have not agreed to abide by any Science or Nature embargoes. Neither journal has invited me to; I am not a journalist, according to their definition of the term, because I write for an advocacy organization, so they do not offer me embargoed access to journal articles in press. But even if I were eligible, I wouldn't agree to abide by their embargoes in exchange for early access anyway, because I think the way that science news is controlled by embargoed press releases distorts the scientific process.

So, to scientists: if you don't want people talking about your work in public, then don't talk about it in public. If you are talking about your work to an audience at a scientific conference that is open to anyone who pays the registration fee, you are talking about it in public. You cannot control what the audience does with that information. You needn't fear that media reports on your conference presentations will prevent you from publishing in Science or Nature. Let microbloggers blog and tweeters tweet, and allow the public to witness your buzzworthy discoveries!

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