Volume 85 Issue 22 | p. 34 | Insights
Issue Date: May 28, 2007

Meetings And The Media

Do journals' rules on prior publication stifle scientific communication?
Department: Science & Technology, ACS News
Any reporters in the audience?
Credit: Istockphoto
Any reporters in the audience?
Credit: Istockphoto

IMAGINE FOR A MOMENT that you are an enterprising science journalist attending a major scientific meeting. You've just found a real scoop: A scientist has just reported some groundbreaking results that no one has reported on yet. But when you go to follow up, the researcher begs you not to write about the group's findings because their publication is pending in a major journal. Your story, the scientist tells you, could jeopardize their journal publication. Every science journalist has a war story like this.

It should come as no surprise that reporters flock to scientific meetings. They're there for the same reason many conferees are. Reporters know that scientific meetings are among the best places to learn about the newest advances in any given field, to meet both established and up-and-coming researchers, and to get a sense of what's getting attention from the scientific community.

For example, between 30 and 40 reporters attend most American Chemical Society national meetings. Of the reporters who attended the most recent one in Chicago, some were from more scientific-minded publications like C&EN, Science, and Chemistry World, but many were there from the general media: the Associated Press, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and Wired, to name a few. All this attention should thrill chemists, who often complain about the dearth of positive media attention for our field.

That's why it always comes as a surprise to me when scientists ask reporters not to write about their work. After all, it's hard to believe that the broad descriptions a science journalist uses—even at a science and technology magazine like C&EN—would jeopardize a publication in any journal. We simply don't have the space or the need to get into the nitty-gritty details that journals require.

To find out just when media attention runs up against a journal's rules on prior publication, I consulted representatives at Science, Nature, Angewandte Chemie, and the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS).

"Science never seeks to stifle the exchange of scientific information among researchers. Authors with pending papers, or authors who hope to have papers considered by Science are free to present their research at scholarly conferences," says Ginger Pinholster, director of the Office of Public Programs at Science's publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"We ask them to kindly refrain from referencing the journal Science or using our imprimatur prior to peer review and publication," she continues. "While they are free to present at meetings, they should not take part in press conferences or press releases, or describe the paper as 'forthcoming in Science' or 'pending at Science.' " In other words, Pinholster says, no publishing by press release.

Rules vary from journal to journal, but many are similar to each other. At Nature, says Assistant Press Officer Katherine Anderson, "we ask people not to present their work to the press if they know they have submitted a paper to us or have had a paper accepted but are awaiting publication. Scientists can present their work at a conference or talk amongst their peers before publication, as long as there is no press presence."

For Angewandte Chemie, Editor Peter Gölitz notes, "Authors are always allowed to report about their latest results at conferences, but they have to be careful that these results are not covered—with more than a sentence perhaps—in publications, and they should not speak about them in detail to journalists or at press conferences prior to the online publication in Angewandte Chemie."

"It depends a little bit to what extent the person talked about what is in the pending JACS paper," explains Editor-in-Chief Peter J. Stang, a professor at the University of Utah. "I have no problems in revealing overall what the person is working on." But, Stang says, if the new concepts are revealed in a news story, then it's a problem.

Stang adds, "I will pull a paper if extensive details or the fundamental concepts are revealed in any media," he says, although he's only done so a handful of times.

Pinholster says authors at Science are never penalized if reporters pick up on research at meetings, so long as the researcher did not proactively seek the advance publicity. "We do not seek to stifle enterprising journalism. We recognize that reporters do cover conferences," she says.

Both Anderson and Gölitz say they've never actually pulled a paper due to prior media coverage, although Anderson points out that it's "theoretically possible."

"We more often observe the problem of prior publication of relevant material in proceedings published in the open literature, for example, in the Polymer Preprints of ACS," Gölitz notes. "This leads regularly to rejections, sometimes prior even to refereeing."

WITH SO MANY nuanced rules and repercussions, I can see why scientists get skittish. Many of these policies, it seems to me, put scientists in an awkward position: How does a researcher present new information at a meeting without jeopardizing its future publication? It's virtually impossible to know if members of the press are in the audience, and scientists usually have no control over what gets written about their work.

Perhaps it's time for journals to reassess their rules regarding news coverage of meeting presentations. Is it fair for scientists and science journalists to be put into conflict, as these rules often do?

Who benefits from these rules anyway? It seems like it's a way for the journals to protect their turf—to preserve their role as the releasers of new information and insights.


Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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