Beyond the Journal: The science of communication

Effective use of embargoes

17 Jul 2019
Like them or loathe them, embargoes are a part of communicating new scientific research to the media.

By Ruth Francis 

The communication of new scientific research is often done under embargo — that is, before the research is available in the public domain on the understanding that reporters will hold off publishing news until the work is formally published.

The use of embargoes is the source of great debate and discussion among journalists and PIOs, but what I’ll try to do here is lay out best practice without getting into all of that. Personally, I believe it is a matter of trust. If you’re using embargoes, then make sure you work transparently and honestly, and make sure you’re sending information to journalists who you know and have agreed to work in this way.

While there are downsides to embargoes, there are some advantages. In general, it is good practice for the full data to be in the public domain when it is reported so audiences and other researchers can access the source material. Working with a journal to coordinate communication of new research ticks that box, and if you send out something ‘for immediate release’ after the publication, journalists sometimes ask “why the release now?” They like to peg their story to ‘newness,’ such as the release of data. 

Journalists usually appreciate the early notice about new work and sending out a release a few days ahead of publication of the results, under embargo timed to publication, can give them time to digest the full paper, interview your scientists and speak to some outside sources.

Embargoes can give you a better chance of getting coverage. Unless something is truly noteworthy, research can get largely ignored if it goes out ‘for immediate release’ because journalists may not have enough time to dig into technical details that day. So if you believe it’s in the public interest to get the research out there as widely as possible, the embargo can be your friend.

But there are drawbacks too, and they would make for a whole new blog post. You can find out more about the history of embargoes and some arguments against them in this thoughtful post on Vox

How press officers can make the most of embargoes: 

Be clear about why your press release is under embargo. Usually embargoes are tied to the publication date of the research in a journal, though they can be tied to conference presentations or press briefings.

Find out when the journal is publishing the work. Don’t rely on the academic to tell you, because often they are only informed at publication. If you can, get in touch with the journal’s press office, or even a production editor, who can give you an idea of how long that journal takes to publish papers that are in the system. 

Some publishing houses, if you have given them your contact information, will let you know about a week beforehand if you have researchers publishing in their journals, but this is not true for all of them. If you have an academic you work with a lot, it can be helpful to build relationships with the journals in which they publish, so you have an idea of how they operate.

Either use a service like Asia Research News that has agreed with journalists in advance that they are happy to receive embargoed news, or contact reporters directly to check with them and build your own press list. Some journalists do not like to be cold contacted with embargoed information and others do not work with embargoes, so best to be sure before sending something out.

Do not make up an embargo. If a reporter finds that work is already in the public domain and you’re trying to embargo it, you will lose their trust for any future press releases. There is some debate about whether research that has appeared on preprint servers can then still be embargoed based on journal publication date. For the most part, journals and press officers are operating as if the research is still embargoed, arguing that only the final version is peer reviewed and with the full dataset. There’s a useful blog about that here.

Don’t use embargoes as a weapon to withhold or be selective about information. If we use them wisely, they can benefit our researchers in the dissemination of their research, and the broader public in understanding that research.

Ruth Francis is a communications expert with 20 years of experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.