If a Paper is Submitted to Nature, Does it Still Make a Sound?

By Julianne Dalcanton | June 9, 2009 11:51 pm

Suppose you (and perhaps a competing team) had an incredibly exciting discovery that you wrote up and submitted to Nature.

Now suppose that you (and the competing team) simultaneously posted your (competing) papers to the ArXiv preprint server (which essentially all astronomers and physicists visit daily). But, suppose you then wrote in the comments “Submitted to Nature. Under press embargo”.

In other words, you wrote the equivalent of “Well, we’ve submitted this to Nature, but they won’t might not accept it or publish it if the news gets into the press, so can all of you reading this just not actually, you know, tell anyone? Oh, but can you make sure that you give us credit for the discovery, instead of the competing team? Thx!”

So, instead of blogging about the Incredibly Exciting Discovery (which I’d loooove to talk about), I’m writing about what a ridiculous fiction the authors are asking us all to participate in, for the sake of the authors’ potentially getting a publication accepted to Nature. The authors advertised a paper to thousands of interesting, engaged scientists, who are then supposed to keep their mouths shut so that the authors can get a paper into a particular journal — one that is not noticeably more influential in astrophysics (i.e. the difference between Nature and non-Nature is not nearly as big a deal as it is in biology).

Look folks, either come up with an agreement with the competing team to both shut your yaps until both your papers are simultaneously released from embargo, or suck it up and just submit the paper to the Astrophysical Journal or some other high prestige journal that doesn’t require Nature’s crazy embargo rules. Your result is terrific, you should be rightly proud, and Nature should be honored to publish your work. But, if a publication in Nature is really the goal you’re after, asking all the rest of us to be complicit is a bit silly.

Plus, I’m wiling to bet that Dennis Overbye skims astro-ph…

Update: Lots of good discussion and insight in the comments, so worth clicking through.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Science and the Media
  • Tyoma

    There was a recent editorial in Nature which makes its embargo policy still more complicated:

  • J.J.E.

    Is this really a problem of Nature’s rules with regard to press/scientist interactions? I don’t know many scientists who are willing to actively pursue a press relationship before a work is actually published, regardless of the desired journal. And Nature’s guidelines are pretty reasonable:


    I think if a story gets picked up by the media prior to the end of Nature’s embargo schedule, Nature’s policy is sufficiently clear that sanctions wouldn’t be appropriate if the authors didn’t participate in breaking the embargo (ie giving interviews). Simple dissemination on a recognized preprint server or at a conference doesn’t constitute a violation according to their policy.

    I think the complicating factor might be something relating to, I dunno, maybe new media. Like just maybe, perhaps, if a certain collection of respected scientists write blogs for a certain distinguished popular science magazine whose readership maybe heavily biased towards (but not exclusively composed of) professional academics in that field, what then? Does discussion of an arXiv preprint article by someone who isn’t a coauthor of the paper constitute a violation of embargo? Probably not. But does that somehow change the dynamics of acceptance when the editors at Nature get together to accept the papers for that week? Who knows…

    I guess it is conceivable that, if Nature had to winnow down their list of otherwise worthy manuscripts, they may throw out an excellent study if they just learned it was on CNN because some respected scientist unrelated to the research talked about the results of the paper from his/her reading of it on arXiv. Is this what you’re getting at?

  • grbiersema

    Jealous, Julianne? :-)

    I think it is a perfectly reasonable way of doing things. Nature wants to make money through their own publicity/press machine, so they have popular press embargoes. At the same time the field of GRBs is extremely fast moving, and there is a direct urgent need to get results out as soon as possible – the pressure from the community is high. So by posting our paper on astro-ph at this stage asking people not to sell the story, we satisfy the rules of Nature as well as doing the community a favour by rapid dissemination of information. You over-dramatize it a bit, imho.

  • http://wintershaven.net Jacob Wintersmith

    Presumably, the obsession with getting one’s publications into high-prestige journals stems from the fact that most academics will be faced with a tenure committee that doesn’t really know enough about their area of research to directly evaluate the candidate’s contribution to the field. Hence, they (partially) outsource the evaluation to journal editors.

    …which makes me curious: Why don’t science departments specialize more than they do? Why are the members of those teams spread across the globe rather than concentrated into a handful of universities? There must be some sort of advantage to the present arrangement, but I’m having difficulty seeing it.

  • jay

    Jealous? Of a Nature paper? Sorry, find a different field. Astronomers don’t care about Nature. Knowing a paper is from Science or Nature is a good first clue that it’s likely to be short on details and long on hype.

  • http://physicsworld.com Hamish

    As someone who scours arXiv daily for news stories, this sort of nonsense can be very frustrating — and it’s not only Nature, Science has a similar embargo policy.

    Scientists — who are funded primarily from the public purse — are being prevented from talking to the public about their work for the sole purpose of furthering the commercial interests of a publisher.

    Here at physicsworld.com we are very aware that researchers (particularly younger people trying to establish a reputation) have to develop a good relationship with such journals, and we will often delay reporting on such preprints at the author’s request. The rationale being that we can write a much better article if we speak directly to the researchers.

    However, nothing gives me greater satisfaction than discovering that a preprint we covered months ago (with the blessing of the researchers) has just been published in Nature or Science!

  • http://www.nonequilibrium.net Dmitry

    I am not sure why TF putting “under press embargo” into comment have any meaning for them. First of all, it was _everywhere_ in news back in the end of April, NewScientist made a video about it – it’s right on YouTube and had 65000 views alone apart from its clones. Second, every single dog in physics blogosphere blogged about this (well, I did :-) ) – I mean, come on, was it supposed to be a secret for 2 months???

  • steve

    It would be great to see someone have the confidence to submit the paper to Nature and simultaneously post the eprint to arXiv, without any pussyfooting about people keeping their mouths shut. I mean, Nature is a great and prestigious and glossy journal and all, but seriously, your paper would be out first.

  • Leslie Sage

    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.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    “Why don’t science departments specialize more than they do? Why are the members of those teams spread across the globe rather than concentrated into a handful of universities? There must be some sort of advantage to the present arrangement, but I’m having difficulty seeing it.”

    You mean, why aren’t all the researchers working on a particular topic at the same
    institute? Sometimes they are, but often they are not. Reasons are two-fold. First, getting
    a job in research is, to first order, a crap shoot. People end up where they end up, but tend
    to collaborate with people they had worked together with—and at the same place—before.
    This is not necessarily bad, because it means that new folks can come from several sources.
    Also, most institutes probably don’t want to put all their eggs in one basket, both in respect
    to research but also in respect to teaching.

  • Anonymous

    Nature is an inferior journal in physics or astronomy. Why bend over to accommodate their silliness?

  • http://sarahaskew.wordpress.com Sarah

    Is the whole concept of an embargo in science is not just a bit outdated? We present work at conferences prior to publication, put it on astro-ph, it gets reported by the media and online from there, everyone talks about it etc etc. By the time it gets published the embargo is essentially irrelevant, the results are out there anyway.

  • http://supernovacondensate.net Invader Xan

    Despite the naysayers, I’m still fairly certain that Nature has about the highest impact factor we’re all able to get in the physical sciences (please do correct me if I’m wrong). Speaking as someone who’s still working on their H-index, a Nature paper certainly seems a worthwhile pursuit…

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    I think numbers 12 and 13 say it all. As long as people value Nature papers, then their
    idea of an embargo makes sense.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/principles/ Chad Orzel

    Here’s a manual TrackBack to my thoughts. Short version: I’m less interested in what people object to about Nature than in what people accept without question.

  • Simon

    Are we talking about the same result that has been in “the news” for more than a month – see e.g. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8022917.stm for BBC coverage dated 28-April (based on an “official” press release by the investigating team) – and featuring quotes from the Nature paper’s authors…? This news coverage presumably predates the submission of the Nature paper(s) since it went public only a week after the exciting result was first detected. Not sure there’s much left to be “embargoed”.

  • Count Iblis

    My confidence in Nature was a bit shaken when I found out that this paper:


    was rejected. The included Referee reports speak volumes.

  • http://www.sonic.net/~rknop/blog Rob Knop

    I think that we should all give up on Nature (the journal).

    I know it’s not going to happen, because (for whatever reason) Nature is prestigious, and the true currency of the University is prestige. Everybody loves it when you have a paper in Nature. It’s a great boost for your career. And, sadly, you have to pay attention to that kind of thing, rather than simply paying attention to doing good science and doing what’s best for science.

    I gave a public talk recently about GRBs. I wanted to look at the publication from the early 1990’s that showed the isotropic distribution of GRBs on the sky, the one that more or less convinced everybody that they had to be at cosmological distances. Alas, the paper was published in Nature, because it was an important paper. Because I’m not at a University, I couldn’t get to it without paying for it. Arguably the most important discovery of the taxpayer-funded Compton Gamma Ray Observatory is locked behind a paywall. This was before people routinely uploaded their accepted papers to astro-ph– it may have been before astro-ph even existed, I’m not sure. Any reasonable journal would have by now released the archives publicly, as the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal both do. But Nature? Nooooo…..

    This is not how science should be done.

    Plus, the one experience I had with being part of a paper accepted to Nature (a 1998 paper from the Supernova Cosmology Project), and watching a graduate student at Vanderbilt have his paper delayed for several months as he was given the runaround as they tried to decide if it was good enough (in the end, it wasn’t), made me realize that it’s simply not worth it to submit to Nature. They’re a pain in the butt to deal with. OK, yes, university administrators by and large have no clue and will love you. But when it comes to the science itself, if the paper is as interesting as all that, it’ll get noticed as long as you publish it in a reputable journal. Give Nature a rest. They’re bad for science. They have this stupid embargo stuff because they’re more about themselves than they are about science, and they lock up what should be public results behind paywalls.

  • http://www.sonic.net/~rknop/blog Rob Knop

    I don’t know many scientists who are willing to actively pursue a press relationship before a work is actually published

    If you’re not willing to talk about your paper yet, you shouldn’t upload it to astro-ph.

    This may be a cultural difference between observers and theorists– I think that theorists routinely upload their papers when they’re submitted, and value the feedback they get. Observers, I believe (certainly myself) don’t upload papers to astro-ph until they’re submitted, not wanting to have people make citations to mistakes that might be caught by a reviewer. (My first paper in grad school — which was 1991 or 1992 — I unwittingly had preprints sent out when the paper was submitted. I got in trouble for that– it was an embarassment to my advisor and my group that I did that.)

    It’s common to give talks at AAS meetings and such about work in progress. But, if you’ve written up something and submitted it to astro-ph, you’ve gone public with it at that point. Youv’e got to be willing to talk about it– especially since nowadays many consider the “press” to include bloggers like the ones on Cosmic Variance, who are exactly the target audience of astro-ph papers.

  • http://www.sonic.net/~rknop/blog Rob Knop

    Speaking as someone who’s still working on their H-index,

    The fact that anybody says this at all points out one of the most horrible problems we have in judging scientists today.

  • Counterfly

    Nature is actually really easy to deal with. They do an (ethically suspect) “pre-review”, where they decided whether to send it out for review. If you make it to review, congratulations. Review is on average quicker than the disastrous PRL, for example- people take it more seriously. Extremely professional, in my experience. Who cares if the press release can’t come out until they say it can? Everyone in the biz will know about it through the arxiv or back-channel, and if the public has to wait a little, so what?

  • [Removed]

    [Spam comment removed]

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    Comment 22 looks like spam, perhaps automatically generated, as it contains nothing but
    a quote from a previous comment and a link to something completely off-topic.

    Ed. — Thanks. That’s a new clever spam variant I haven’t seen yet…

  • Julianne

    I think J.J.E. hit the nail on the head that the issue is much more complicated with “new media”. Previously, a topic could be the subject of intense water cooler discussions, but with no way of rising into the public consciousness. The scientific press would then play an important role in revealing that excitement to the general public. However, with the large number of widely read scientific blogs, our excitement about certain results can be easily witnessed by both the public and members of the more traditional media, making a press embargo harder to maintain.

    I’m not, however, getting into the issue of whether or not press embargoes are a good or bad thing — I certainly understand why Nature or Science want them, as it helps to secure their brand. Having a big splash that hits many media outlets simultaneously does help to generate and reinforce excitement in the general public (which is a good thing), and for the many junior scientists who are duking it out in a truly awful job market, a bit of public brouhaha about your work can be a real leg up in a trying situation.

    FYI, Chad has some thoughtful comments about ArXiV on the link he posted above, which are worth a read.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy Phil Plait

    I think most of the comments here are missing the point. Nature is not the issue here; the fact that the scientists basically published their results on the web and then asked people not to talk about them is the point. Nature can have whatever embargo rules it wants, but when the scientists involved put their paper on a public website they can’t then ask for the press not to talk about it.

    It’s like someone murdering their parents and then asking for mercy because they’re an orphan. It doesn’t work that way.

  • http://www.slackerastronomy.org/ Michael

    Phil, why is that a problem? If Nature can ask us to embargo stuff, why can’t scientists?


  • Aleks

    What is unclear to me: This story has been in the news in April, just after the GRB, as pointed out earlier. According to the Nature embargo policies, this should have been rejected. Surely, it is now allowed to distribute the news about a GRB at z=8.3, or not? So, what’s the meaning of ’embargo’ here? Is the story (GRB at z=8.3) already public, but the paper itself with the technical details not? That means, we can talk about the fact that a GRB occurred, but not about the data reduction, numbers, figures, etc.? Any further information is appreciated.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    For me the strange thing is that the Nature editorial mentioned by Tyoma in comment 1 seems to clearly say that a paper that’s appeared on the arXiv and is bound for Nature is still under a limited embargo that bars the authors of the paper from actively seeking media attention but allows journalists to write about it and scientists to answer questions about it:

    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.

    But Leslie Sage, an astronomy editor at Nature, says in comment 9 that an arXiv-to-Nature paper is not under embargo at all. So which is it? If Nature’s editors are at variance with the journal’s apparently official position, that suggests there’s a lack of clarity.

    (It may be that the editorial and/or Leslie’s comment line up just fine but I’m misinterpreting one or both. Happy to be corrected.)

  • Doug

    One of the problems is that the arxiv itself hasn’t decided what it is. Is it a place to put up papers you have just submitted but haven’t yet passed through a peer review, in which case reporters really shouldn’t be reporting on those results as they haven’t passed (some minimal form of) muster yet? Or is it a place where you post your papers after they’ve been accepted to a journal, and is therefore a way of getting papers out faster than what the journals themselves can do?

    Currently you get both of those mixed together and are dependent on the uploaders leaving a comment as to whether this is an accepted paper or merely a submitted one. I’ve always been tempted to refuse to referee any paper that I’ve already read a version of on astro-ph, simply because most people will read it the first time the see it and then never refer to the refereed version.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy Phil Plait

    Michael (#26) the problem here is that the scientists put the paper on a public website! You can’t make something public then yell “Shhhh!”

  • http://page3.com Ian Paul Freeley

    For those who want to see the papers in question:

    The journals Nature and Science keep using the word “embargo”. I do not think that word means what they think it means.

  • Daniel Carney

    @17 — that is amazing. Thanks.

  • dennis

    To my considerable relief, I see I wrote something about this on April 29, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/30/science/space/30brfs-BOOMFROMUNIV_BRF.html
    I agree with Phil and apparently Nature that if something is on the arXiv, the embargo is broken and it is fair game. Personally I think all embargos are an abomination, designed to let persons and institutions manage the news to their own benefit. It’s not really any fun to participate in them.

  • Jim

    #26 – They can ask all they like, it just isn’t going to happen. The Internet treats censorship as damage and routes around it.

  • olli

    As I understand it, an embargo typically comes with press releases referring to papers. When a paper is scheduled to appear in Nature, the PR department of the university or research institution of the main author may decide to prepare a press release and send it out to newspapers and journalists a few days before the publication. This can be seen as a service to journalists because it provides them with a more easily digestible text on the research that can be printed with little or no alterations. In return Nature and the PR department ask journalists not to print anything about this before the actual paper is published in Nature – Nature wants to be first, of course, but it is in their interest that press reports appear on the same day or shortly after, which is why press releases are sent out before publication of the article to give journalists time to prepare. An embargo is thus just a normal aspect of the three-way cooperation of Nature, the researchers (and their PR department) and the general media.
    There is of course nothing that binds journalists in any way to adhere to an embargo but it’s in their interest to do so because they profit from the information given to them. Other than that they are free to report on anything that is out there. Putting a paper on astro-ph is just that, putting it out there for anyone to read or talk about, and it’s certainly not a service to journalists for which one could ask a favour in return. Embargoing an astro-ph paper seems just, well, silly.

  • http://lighthouseinthesky.blogspot.com/ Anne

    I recently had a paper in Science, and we went through this embargo rigmarole as well. When we asked the editor explicitly, she told us that it was okay to present the paper at a conference, but not to post it to the arxiv until it was out of embargo, which is at least reasonably consistent.

    Whether it was worth publishing in Science rather than ApJ I’m not so sure – certainly we got a lot of press coverage, mostly awful, which might in principle be good for keeping the observatories we used funded (Arecibo, in particular, has its funding threatened). Whether choosing Science rather than ApJ will be important for my career, I can’t really judge; since I’m still only a grad student I just followed the advice of my more experienced coauthors. At least we were able to use the Supporting Online Material to mostly fill in the details, so it’s not quite as useless as some Science/Nature papers.

  • http://astronoise.wordpress.com Nicole

    “…one that is not noticeably more influential in astrophysics (i.e. the difference between Nature and non-Nature is not nearly as big a deal as it is in biology).”

    In fact, it’s almost seen as a hindrance to the paper. Nature gets a certain “gee whiz” factor, but too many astronomers see it as having too much fluff and not enough analysis. (And from my journal club experiences, that seems to be not entirely unfounded! Although the supplementary materials help with that.)

    So Nature has some official prestige and you want to get in there, fine. But astro-ph is already public. And we’re in the age where bloggers read astro-ph, and scientists are bloggers, too, and the scientific media is changing in a way where this “look but shhh” thing is ridiculous.

  • Leslie Sage

    The notes “under embargo” will be removed by tomorrow morning (there is a 24-hr delay in changing things on astro-ph).

    As pointed out above, there is an inconsistency between embargo and posting. Olli (35) gets closest to the present view.

    The decision to allow posting to arxiv at any time at the author’s discretion was made because astro-ph had by that point (1997) become the way we astronomers communicate results to our community in advance of publication. But it has become a way for science journalists to find out what is going on. We have decided “so be it”– we’re not going to interfere with a valuable service to the community for a narrow and outmoded purpose (saving embargoes).

    A lot of the ranting actually is very poorly informed about what is and isn’t allowed. If anyone wants details they should contact me directly for an explanation: “l.sage@naturedc.com”.

    As to why we would consider the papers after the publicity– are you crazy? The most distant objects in the Universe (so far). Those are important papers that will have lasting value, which is what we aim for in selecting papers for Nature. We don’t care about the flash in the pan news value, which is why we take such a relaxed view about embargoes.

  • Michelangelo D’Agostino

    No journalist who sees these papers and wants to write about them is going to worry about that “under embargo” bit. I certainly wouldn’t. An embargo only exists if a publication or journalist has signed a contract with a journal to get early copies of papers and agrees to respect the rules. The contract spells out what you can and can’t do. If the publication breaks the embargo, there are consequences (like no more early copies of papers, a severe tongue-lashing, etc.) But if there’s no contract, and if the information is public, simply saying “under embargo” does nothing.

  • Karin

    What I’d like to know is how these two separate teams managed to get spots 1 & 2 on astro-ph, with the same paper subject, submitted to the same journal and with the same embargo disclaimer. Seems like there has to be an interesting story behind that!

  • http://www.GoHover.com Eric Goldstein

    At comment number 21, Counterfly says: Who cares if the press release can’t come out until they say it can? Everyone in the biz will know about it through the arxiv or back-channel, and if the public has to wait a little, so what?

    Arxiv is fine, but as a member of the public, I’m very disappointed to hear a “so what?” attitude about making the public wait while those in the biz have back-channel info. Here’s the extreme case: imagine a member of the public who just lives for this stuff, and she has a terminal illness. Don’t risk making her wait! Not to be too morbid, but every member of the public reading this blog might unknowingly be in her shoes — we all live for this stuff, and none of us really knows when we will die. Making anyone who is interested have to wait has a cost. When astronomers get information though a back channel, I wish they felt obligated to immediately share that information with the general public, at least when the general public is paying the bills for the telescope that made the info possible. My particular interest is extrasolar planets, and it disheartens me that instead of prompt open & honest information sharing, there are rumors and long embargoes and proprietary data analysis periods, even for taxpayer-funded projects. I’m very happy to go to bat for you folks by cornering members of Congress and trying to get them excited about funding astronomy projects – you should promptly share the info in return!

  • http://supernovacondensate.net Invader Xan

    The fact that anybody says this at all points out one of the most horrible problems we have in judging scientists today.

    Alas, I’m just a fledgling. If I want a career, I need to play by the rules, like it or not…

    As far as I can discern, this seems to be the real point to this whole debacle. It’s already been made clear in the comments of this post alone that the very idea of embargoing this now it’s on astro-ph is null and void. There evidently is no embargo to break for all of us. Interesting that no one’s actually blogged about it yet, really…

  • http://www.fundy.com Fundie

    The most amazing thing in this saga is that results so trivial can attract so much attention. “We hereby announce that *we* can see farther out than anyone else.” I mean, is it really surprising that there are GRBs far away? It might make an entry in the Guinness Book of Records, but apart from that who cares? Do we really need a new paper every time the distance record is broken? Can Usain Bolt get a paper in Nature too?

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Karin #40,

    if you submit your paper just after 20.00 GMT you will just miss the deadline for the next day and then your paper will appear on top of the listings for the papers for the day after that.

    Making sure your paper appears near the top is very important, as pointed out here:


  • Julianne

    Fundie — The problem is that there is a limit to how far away you can push it. Farther away = further back in time = closer to the big bang. The GRB (gamma ray burst) the papers are discussing likely went off ~650 million years after the big bang. While that sounds like a lot to a human being, that’s really not that much time for the stars that were the likely precursor of the GRB. In other words, in just a few hundreds of millions of years, enough gas collected in a small enough space to form a star, and then enough time passed to then have that star evolve and blow up. The GRB was likely to be the endpoint of a massive star’s life, which meant it had to have lived that entire life incredibly soon after the start of the whole shebang. That’s why it’s so cool.

    Apparently an initial round of discussion of this GRB went around earlier this year (see Dennis Overbye’s comment above, for example). I, apparently, was too distracted to actually notice any of the earlier discussion, so was really stoked when I saw the papers (which present actual spectra, rather than estimates of the distance based on the relative flux through different colored filters). But then, I couldn’t figured out whether I was allowed to talk about the results, which are indeed fantastic.

    Anyways, it seems that the whole thing has settled out, and that the comment about the press embargo has been removed from arXiv. Hopefully the two teams will get their papers published in short order, as they deserve.

  • Rien


    But unless I’ve misunderstood something, the h-index is not affected by the impact factor of journals you publish in, only the number of citations to your papers. So unless you expect to get cited more for publishing in Nature, it doesn’t matter.

  • http://www.sonic.net/~rknop/blog Rob Knop

    Alas, I’m just a fledgling. If I want a career, I need to play by the rules, like it or not…

    Oh, yes, you’re right. I’m not criticizing you– you’re doing the right thing given the situation you’re in.

    I am, however, very sad about the way in which we decide if somebody is a worthy professor or not. Part of this is personal– everything was going great, but I was having a hard time wringing a dime out of the heavily oversubscribed NSF, and that (and only that) spelled doom for me. But even beyond that, this mindless stats game and box-checking that you have to do in order for people to think you’re worthy is dehumanizing, and also drives everybody towards doing things that improve the stats instead of figuring out how they can make their own best contribution.

  • Brad H

    I guess I’m in the minority, but I think the current system is correct. The
    point of astro-ph is to disseminate information widely and quickly amongst the scientific community, and the papers should be posted as soon as possible. But I think it would be a terrible thing if news reports were based on astro-ph posting, because science journalists do a very, very poor job of filtering out the good work from the trash. I think it serves the overall public perception of science if press reports are restricted to work that has received the imprimatur of peer-reviewed publication (yes, I know the referee system is not great, but it is still infinitely better than journalists given unfiltered reign to misunderstand and misrepresent).

  • lol
  • Tod R. Lauer

    Is it 100% clear to everyone now that a publicly declared embargo is meaningless?

    The only context in which an embargo has any meaning is as a contract between two consenting parties. Authors: “I will let you see the paper, if you agree to X, Y, & Z.” Recipient, “I agree to X,Y, & Z – now please let me see it.” Authors: “OK, here it is.” We do this all the time with colleagues, etc.., who might look over something before you submit it. Referees are always under an embargo, given the obvious conditions under which they agree to see a paper. But in all cases, the conditions AND agreement to the conditions are clear before an exchange of the paper itself takes aplce.

    One can under no circumstance, however, declare an embargo in the public square and expect it to mean anything or have any power.

    I was at a conference in 1996 when a speaker declared an embargo before he spoke to an audience of 300 or so, which included science reporters. The fact that he then immediately launched into his talk without verifying consent of all 300+ present, or even asking those unhappy with this to leave, rendered it instantly and ludicrously irrelevant. As a member of the audience I certainly had no responsibility to keep secret what he openly stated.

    With regards to the science press, they are professionals and not under our control or management. They are welcome to get their information where ever they care to, and do what ever they want with it under their own journalistic system of ethics. If they want to read an astro-ph paper and make a front page story out of it, or completely mangle it, that is their call. Again, an embargo here requires two consenting parties who define a verbal contract before exchanging information.

  • http://beesbuzz.biz/ fluffy

    Are these the papers you were referring to?

  • A.Strumia

    As various commenters pointed out that self-declaring “this is under embargo until it is published under the copyright of Nature” is meaningless, let me give a practical example. One year ago the implications of the measurements presented at conferences by the PAMELA and ATIC collaborations were openly studied on the arXiv before their publication on Nature. Nature published news and letters against the “paparazzi physicists” that ignored the embargo, but refused to publish a letter written by a collaborator of mine to clarify the situation. His “embargoed” letter is freely available on his web-site.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    “One of the problems is that the arxiv itself hasn’t decided what it is.”

    Several years ago, I had an extended email correspondence with the maintainers of
    ArXiv, trying to get them to introduce a REQUIRED field containing the publication status,
    with mandatory updates. (If a paper moves from submitted to accepted, most will probably
    update voluntarily, but if a paper is reject, it might linger on in the submitted status,
    perhaps indefinitely.) The impression I had was that this wouldn’t be implemented because
    it would essentially use external criteria (publication status) to judge the quality of ArXiv
    submissions, whereas in some sense ArXiv wanted to become an alternative to the
    established system, though of course it accepts papers published elsewhere.

    Why do people use ArXiv? Because it is a one-stop shop. Journals nowadays have online
    access, and it would be easy for them to make accepted or even submitted papers visible.
    Most people would still browse just the daily ArXiv listings. Why? Because that is ALL they
    have to browse: it covers all the journals, both popular and obscure, as well as conference
    proceedings etc. In other words, it’s more efficient.

    This highlights the difference between serial reading and browsing. Internet pioneer,
    comedian and troublemaker has some interesting thoughts on this at:


    and near the end of:


    I’ve taken to reading and commenting on a few blogs recently. However, in almost all
    cases the same functionality could be implemented better and more efficiently if the
    blog were not a blog but a newsgroup (though to make the most of this, it would have to
    be read with a real newsreader and not just accessed by a web browser via an http
    interface, e.g. Google Groups).

    In other words, the daily ArXiv listings are like a new newsgroup post. Checking up on
    all journals and other sources for new content would be like catching up on blogs. Which
    is more efficient? ArXiv, like a newsgroup as opposed to a blog, provides a standard
    interface to all articles.

    This gets back to the reason for journals to go online at all, rather than just relying on the
    stuff being posted on ArXiv: vanity. In other words, journals want to remain players and
    they do what they can to try to achieve this (embargoes etc) for the same reason that people
    have blogs rather than creating an equivalent newsgroup.

    Sure, some serial content benefits from links to URLs elsewhere, and some web content can
    be read sequentially. But almost always, one wants either web-like content or serial
    content. If I book a holiday, the website might have thousands and thousands of pages,
    but in booking I navigate through the ones I need. I don’t care about the others, and I visit
    the site only when I need to. In contrast, some things are better read sequentially, like
    news and most blogs. OK, the blogger himself can present his posts sequentially (though,
    unlike with a newsgroup in which a subscriber automatically notices new content, the
    reader has to check for new content), but the comments are no longer sequential (especially
    when more than one blog is concerned).

    In other words, the world would be a better place if there were a uniform interface to
    blogs and comments which automatically alerts the reader to new content and doesn’t
    bother him with stuff he has already seen or doesn’t want to see. But why re-invent the
    wheel? This has been around for years with the NNTP protocol. In other words, why not
    have alt.talk.cosmic-variance as a newsgroup? What, apart from lack of vanity (the
    equivalent of the hair-metal poser), would be lost? Much would be gained.

    If most bloggers continue with the inefficient blog format out of vanity, of course it is too
    much to expect journals to behave rationally; they prefer vanity to efficiency as well.

  • coolstar

    Rob Knop is certainly right, but it’s very hard to get anyone who has “won the lottery” themselves to say so publicly. I see the original post as a little bit of “blaming the victim”, unfortunately. Nature’s policy has always been reprehensible (so what if it makes economic sense to them? it’s still reprehensible). I saw the “request for embargo” as a clever way of gaming the system, until the Nature editor chimed in and said that wasn’t really true anymore (so Nature’s rules have largely fallen to advances in technology, finally). Nature’s arcane rules confused the authors; the blame for this sort of thing is clearly Nature’s.
    Anything anyone even thinks they can do to game this system is ok with me (and that includes talking to reporters).

  • Dave

    Here are a few comments:

    1. I think that there is questionable value for US astronomers to publish in Nature vs. ApJ, but the same is not true in other countries. In many smaller counties, research funding is directly tied to the “impact factor” of the journals that scientists publish in. ApJ’s impact factor is the highest among astronomy journals, but Nature beats it by a factor of 5 or so, although I think that Science is usually slightly ahead of Nature.

    2. Nature’s enforcement of the embargo policy is somewhat flexible depending on how much they want to publish your paper. If they want your paper more than you want to publish in Nature, then they’ll be quite willing to forgive “accidental” violations of their policy.

    3. Embargo rules are basically designed to get equal access to the press. If one press outlet gets an early article out on a discovery, then all the other outlets are “scooped”. It becomes old news, and many news outlets don’t do the story. Embargos are quite common with papers that are accompanied by press releases, and they allow the press releases to be distributed to the journalists ahead of time, so they can try to understand the discovery and write there stories ahead of time. These are done on the honor system, but journalists who violate the embargos risk being excluded from future press release distributions.

    4. Obviously, this implied threat of denying future early press releases does not apply to arXiv. And since scientists would generally much rather see the paper than the press release, there doesn’t seem to be any rationale to trying to apply this embargo to CV or Bad Astronomy bloggers.

    5. Nature and Science generally do press releases every week, and generally insist that any other press release follow their schedule. ApJ allows the authors to decide if they want an embargo.

    6. Nature actually has a much more offensive policy than this embargo issue. Nature, unlike Science, insists that the editors and not the authors have the right to decide on the title of a paper. Typically, they don’t tell the authors in advance that they are planning to make a change (although they do send you a boilerplate warning), and the authors see the change with the proofs of the paper. And typically, they will change the title to hype the result in a way that most scientists would be too cautious to do. Since Nature insists on publishing only cutting-edge results, these changes often change the whole meaning of the paper, from the report of a potentially exciting result to a bold claim that later turns out to be wrong. Or more often, they change the title to one that claims more than the paper actually shows.
    In contrast, Science allows the authors to control the title of their papers, so I would recommend Science over Nature for future astronomy papers.

  • Pingback: ScienceBlogs Channel : Physical Science | BlogCABLE.COM()

  • PTM

    Nature is one of the biggest hindrances to free dissemination of scientific information and therefore to science itself.

  • Pingback: Criticism of Preprint Embargo « Open Education News()

  • Cusp

    > Nature is one of the biggest hindrances to free dissemination of scientific information and therefore to science itself.

    Not in astronomy as most (all) papers are submitted to astro-ph and so are freely available.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

See More

Collapse bottom bar