With some online outlets challenging the controversial embargo system and the Ingelfinger rule, could this be the beginning of the end for love-it-or-hate-it feature of modern science journalism?

The space and astronomy news site Universe Today has decided to simply ignore embargoed stories as of 31 March 2011. "Everybody knows embargoes are broken, but nobody's willing to take the first step and abandon the system," Fraser Cain, publisher of the Universe Today site, told ABSW.

The site will only cover studies that are publicly available to promote a level playing field in science journalism.

"My main problem with embargoes is how they create a dual class society of journalists," Cain said. "There are the 'credentialed journalists' on one side, who get access to the embargoed material, and then everyone else. That leaves out the bloggers and part time freelancers who […] write solid science articles," he said, adding that excluding bloggers and freelancers in this way ignores the importance of their contribution to modern, internet-age journalism.

We recently covered the thorny issue of embargoes, agenda- and tone-setting press releases and the Ingelfinger rule, which have all had their dose of controversy and criticism, but now science news outlets have started abandoning the rules.

Ivan Oransky, editor of Embargo Watch, regards the issue as something of a moral stand as "the site is willing to sacrifice timeliness for reporting, and trying to level the playing field". However, Oransky told ABSW that "to really have an effect on the embargo system, they'd have to stop agreeing to embargoes altogether, and you'd need a number of outlets to do that. […] Without reporters to agree to them, they [the embargoes] would go away."

But some say the buck doesn't stop with embargoes because even without them, the infamous Ingelfinger rule, which only allows publication of work in journals that has not already been presented elsewhere, would keeps scientists from talking to the press until their studies have been published.

Another site has decided to go against this rule, though. Faculty of 1000 (F1000), a group facilitating post-publication peer review, now allows conference posters to be exhibited on its site. As these posters often consist of unpublished work, their publication online is a potential violation of the Ingelfinger rule.

F1000 contacted various scientific journals to discover whether submitting a poster to F1000 would preclude publication in them. They found that while some journals like Science would simply refuse to publish papers containing data that appeared in F1000 in poster form, others such as Nature and British Medical Journal, would be happy to accept such papers, provided there was additional unpublished information in the submitted paper.

Ironically, some journals unwilling to publish papers that appear on F1000 have previously published papers based on posters that had been published as part of the proceedings of scientific conferences.

"My hope is that by exposing the frankly contradictory policies of some journals, F1000 will bring pressure to bear, and force some change," Oransky said. But he added this is unlikely "to spell the end of the Ingelfinger Rule, but what the response of journals to the site does is point out just how stubborn and brittle publishers can be".

Oransky himself has shown how pressure can bring about real change with his 'Honour Roll' of journals that have responded to criticism of their embargo policies by changing their rules. It seems that science reporters and news outlets may also be able to change the rules by deciding not to be bound by them.

 
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