Beyond the Journal: The science of communication

Conferences, media and embargo fears

01 Feb 2019
You just gave the talk of your career, presenting exciting new results, and got noticed by a journalist. What do you do?

By Ruth Francis 

This is a question I get asked a lot. What happens if I get approached by media at a conference where I’m presenting new and unpublished work? 

The answer is different depending on the situation, the conference, whether you have submitted the work to a journal, where the research is in the publishing cycle, and whether it’s on a preprint server. It also depends on your own level of confidence and desire to talk about it publicly. 

Most researchers would prefer to wait until their research has been peer reviewed before talking to media, and this is generally considered best practice; but if you don’t speak to the reporter and they cover the research anyway, you lose the ability to shape the reporting. It’s a conundrum that I’ve struggled with in my career. 

Some journals will not allow you to speak one to one with a journalist or hand over any data or slides prior to publication, but many aren’t so strict and are happy for communication to take place. Find out what the journal you’ve submitted to allows. If the data is under embargo while in press with a journal, be sure to explain that during your talk. 

If a reporter is keen to proceed, they can simply report from your talk or ask you to respond. If an embargo restricts this, is there a peer who understands your work who they could speak to? If your work is already on a preprint server, you can also point to that so they can find out more. 

In truth, reporters often use talks to simply get ideas for stories they’ll run at a later date and may approach you to get more information to report once you publish the work. But also remember that when talking to a journalist nothing is truly off the record, even if you’re at a reception after the main event.

Unless the conference is closed, anything said can be reported from the presentations and talks. But more importantly, this is your opportunity to communicate with your peers and you should not let fears of reporting stop that.

Of course, you may be asked to give a press conference about your work and this allows you to prepare in advance. If you are under embargo restrictions with a journal then you will need to say no, but otherwise this offers an opportunity to talk to a room full of journalists and potentially to see your work reported in lots of different outlets. 

This can feel scary, but with the right preparation can be fun and brings me to a final observation: news stories from press conferences are usually published the same or next day. Journalists work much more quickly than peer review. 

Ruth Francis is a communications expert with more than 17 years of experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.