Kill the post-embargo publication window

By Ed Yong | February 24, 2010 12:45 pm

I can’t find the paper you’ve written about and your link doesn’t work. What’s going on? 

I keep having to answer this question and it’s getting tiresome (although, as we’ll see, this no fault of the people who ask it). This post is borne of that frustration.

Hulk.jpgAt the bottom of every piece I write about peer-reviewed research (which is most of them), I include a citation for the paper in question and a link. This is good practice. Every journalist should, in theory, do it. The link is almost always to a DOI number rather than to the journal page. And often, those links don’t work. This post explains why and I will link to it from every single post I write with massive bold letters.

A lot of the stories I write are embargoed – this means that people can only publish their pieces about the story at a certain point in time. However, even after the embargo lifts, there is often a time gap before the journal in question actually publishes the paper and before the DOI listing works. For some journals, this time is negligible – Nature and Science, for example, reliably have their papers up within minutes or hours of the embargo lift. For others, it can be much longer. PNAS is the most obvious example – I’ve waited for up to two weeks before the paper actually went online after it made the news. The record so far is several months for a Journal of Zoology paper.

It’s very important to realise this because at the point when most journalists write their pieces, there is no paper to link to. What they’d have to do is to go back to the piece after it’s been published and retrospectively add a link. Which, and I speak from personal experience, is an absolute pain in the nethers. By then, we’ve got other things to do and (as with PNAS) it’s never entirely clear when the paper is actually going to go live.

The alternative, then, is to do what I do, which is to provide the DOI and as full a citation as possible so that when the paper does come online, readers will at least be able to find it.

That’s not ideal however, because people still get confused when they search for something that isn’t actually out yet. I get a lot of comments to this effect. Of course, the best solution would be to totally eliminate the gap between embargo and publication so that the public can actually see the paper (or, at least, the abstract) when the news hits.

I’ve written about embargoes before (and thrilled to see that Ivan Oransky has started an Embargo Watch blog). They’re controversial but on balance, I’m favourable towards them. The big change I want to see is the extinction of the post-embargo publication gap. It’s existence is a vestigial leftover from the age where journalists acted as sources of authority and it’s a complete anathema to the internet world.

People expect to be able to tumble down the rabbit-hole of links to find original sources and check them out for themselves, if they are so inclined. These outmoded policies mean that the rabbit hole ends in 404 purgatory.

This practice punishes scientists who are unable to see, comment on, or discuss work that is outed in the mainstream media, it punishes journalists who are trying to link to original sources, and it punishes readers who are inquisitive and skeptical enough to try to verify the information they read. None of these is acceptable.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Journalism

Comments (27)

Links to this Post

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  1. Bob O'H

    Yay! It posses me off too. But what can we do to change it?

  2. Word. But I’m wondering, Ed, if you have any insight into why you get this decoupling between publication and publicity in the first place. Is it that the journal PR and editorial departments not talking to each other? Or a breakdown in communication between the journal and University PR machines?

  3. Nathan Myers

    It also punishes the scientists who publish the embargoed papers, depriving them of a deserved audience. How many people, 404ed, end up going back to read the paper when it is finally posted?
    Scientists who want their papers seen could post them elsewhere, perhaps (e.g. for Nature and Science papers) in more usefully complete form. Indeed, we see this with physics and astronomy papers on Arxiv. Aren’t there similar places for biologists to post their papers?

  4. Thanks Ed,
    This is a bigger problem than most people realize, in that it leads to “peer review” by the press. When the only people with access to the paper are journalists, the value of a piece of research is established in the media by… journalists! Essentially, the authors’ true peers are prevented from evaluating the work until the press have had their say.
    I’ve come across this problem a few times, but hadn’t realized how widespread it is. In some instances, the problem is driven by journal press offices who want the headline stories, but who don’t seem interested in the actual science – or the peer review process. I hope in other cases it is just poor management. But either way, there is no way that delays between embargoes being lifted and papers being accessible are acceptable.
    End of rant!

  5. Wim

    I didn’t know this happens so often. But even when a paper is published online according to schedule, a second problem remains for the majority of all internet users: most scientific papers are not open-access. So even if the DOI link works, most people are only able to read the abstract.

  6. Thanks for writing this. I’ve just put up a post on this myself (there’s a link on my name); meant to write about it sooner, but wanted to wait until my annoyance had subsided! :-)
    Essentially, the authors’ true peers are prevented from evaluating the work until the press have had their say.
    Part of my concern too, Andrew.

  7. Word x 10000.
    It not only buggers things up in the here in now, but fast forward a few years and think of all that related content that’s not – and never will be – actually, meaningfully hyperlinked. THE HORROR. Part of the brilliant of Research Blogging and related endeavors is to try to move things forward wrt knitting together online science…
    Also – you’d think the journals wouldn’t sniff at the extra traffic either!
    The whole thing is full of FAIL.

  8. People expect to be able to tumble down the rabbit-hole of links to find original sources and check them out for themselves, if they are so inclined.
    i wish more people would read the original paper :-) but perhaps your readers are more considerate in this dimension.

  9. But don’t you have a copy of the paper? Once the embargo has lifted you could post a copy of it – at least for the ones that are Open Access.
    I mean, as an actual science journalist you’re not writing stuff based on press releases, right? You are looking at the actual research.

  10. Briana

    Oh my, well… I apologize for repeating old questions. I had no idea about these embargoes. Posting this in big fat letters under the DOI is a good idea to fight the faces of ignorance such as mine.

  11. It’s frustrating, but not always sinister. Often a publisher doesn’t have the system in place to get the numbers to the DOI system immediately a paper is published…

  12. Ed Yong

    Thanks for the great comments folks. Nathan, Andrew and Henry, in particular, make excellent points about further flaws in this system.
    Chris – I suspect that the causes are specific to each individual journal and that in most cases, it’s what David suggests in #11 – a technical issue rather than a motivational one.
    Razib – I’m not saying that everyone goes back to original papers, hence the “if they are so inclined” bit. ;-) But everyone should have the *option* to.
    Janne – I have never written a post from a press release. But the fact that I have the papers on the desktop doesn’t help. Only a certain proportion of my posts are based on open access research and PloS is already ahead of the game in terms of having no post-embargo publication gap. With PNAS, you can’t tell which papers are going to be open access ahead of time.
    David – Indeed, and I wasn’t really implying that there was some Machiavellian motive behind this. But even if technological flaws underlie the problem, that doesn’t really make it any better.

  13. That is annoying, agreed. I’ve yet to manage to use a DOI competently and nearly always head to PubMed. In fact, when doing our weekly roundup for colleagues of the medical / health / charity literature I’ve found that typing the article title into google nearly always brings up as the first hit the PubMed abstract. It’s usually exactly what I’m after and is sometimes better than visiting the journal site itself (especially if it’s the first 150 words).
    As a touch typist it’s easier for me to type words in than wrestle with the DOI alphanumeric string but for others it might be the other way around.
    If the abstract isn’t yet available on PubMed or anywhere else then the URL for the Google search itself will remain live in perpetuity (when clicked it will launch a new search for the same terms) so might be useful as an interim locator? It will give PubMed and likely also the host journal site too, once it’s been added and crawled.
    Example http://is.gd/99dBq – which I’m delighted to see has featured in NCBI ROFL.
    But of course it would be better if it could be fixed at source.

  14. This all fits in to this slightly idealistic and rambling theory I’ve had for a while…
    IF! IF! news websites would link to journal articles *as a matter of policy*, then the ‘interested’ public would have access to, at the very least, the abstracts of primary research papers. But, more pertinently, journals would suddenly find they had a new audience for their content. Given this new audience, its plausible that they’d come under pressure from their senior management to ‘monetise’ it – e.g. keep them, show them ads, provide them with reasons to return. This could ultimately transform journal websites from dry archives of old science into thriving hubs of science communication.
    Of course, getting news websites to link to the papers is fundamentally thwarted by the issue Ed mentions in this post.
    What do people think? Hopelessly idealistic or something worth getting het up about?
    I *love* the word ‘thwarted’.

  15. (ta to Jo’s twitter feed for making me read comments)
    Henry – colleagues at Imperial been banging on about this for years. So no, don’t think you are being hopelessly idealistic. Or at least if you are, other people agree with you.
    I love the imagry of journal websites as “thriving hubs of science communication” by the way. Bzzzzzz.

  16. Ed Yong

    Henry – we’ve ranted about this before so you know I think it’s a great idea ;-) Idealistic maybe, but far from hopelessly so.

  17. Ha, I suspected I wasn’t the only one to have thought thjis… (great minds? ;)

  18. David Marjanović

    Aren’t there similar places for biologists to post their papers?

    No.
    When you don’t have access to a paper, you write to the authors, or some other colleague, and they’ll send you the pdf…

  19. Feel free to link to the DOI via pubget.com – we try to get the PDF links up as soon as possible (sometimes before doi.org and linkouts).
    We have some javascript in our API you can include on your posting. If we have the PDF, it shows up, otherwise not. This way you can put up the link ahead of print and your users will not be teased with an icon that goes nowhere. You can see it in action on researchblogging.org.
    It will not solve the underlying problem, but at least provides a work around for your readers.

  20. J.D.

    Please excuse a naive question, but I’ve always wondered how bloggers get the papers ahead of press time anyway. i understand press releases given out by the major journals to the major news outlets, but how do people not associated with the major presses get access to manuscripts before publication? Do authors send them out to people in the hopes of being mentioned? An inside person in the editorial offices?

  21. complex field

    What’s the point of an embargo anyway?

  22. I too have been reading Ivan’s blog. There is really no excuse for why a publication would lag on posting an article after the embargo passes. You would think they’d want to be ready to go and build the traffic along with the news release. The only reason I can imagine is lack of resources – or outsourcing web development.

  23. Pretty simple solution, if writers and bloggers would not publish a post on a paper until after the paper has become available, there would be no problem.
    It is clear why the journals (like PNAS) do this, it is to get “buzz” going when the paper is still not available.
    Just wait until the paper is actually available, not until the date of the embargo. I appreciate this means delaying your posts, but you do have the DOI link, so you can check it every day. I don’t think it will detract the slightest bit from your readership.

  24. Namnezia

    It would be useful to post the full citation, not just the link. Then we can just look up the paper independently.

  25. Simon

    Mr. Young, there’s a typo in the article in the antepenultimate paragraph: it should be “Its existence is”.

  26. Andy

    It would be helpful to give a citation for the paper in addition to the doi. On their websites, researchers will occasionally provide manuscript downloads for papers that are waiting to be published. In these cases, a citation will be more useful than a doi link that doesn’t go anywhere at the time.

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