Editor's Choice

Breaking the embargo

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a2852 (Published 04 December 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2852
  1. Fiona Godlee, editor, BMJ
  1. fgodlee{at}bmj.com

    The breaking of media embargoes comes pretty high on the list of editors’ pet hates. What’s an embargo? It’s the date and time before which we ask journalists to refrain from reporting something we are due to publish. We issue a press release a few days beforehand, and, because journalists benefit from a system that gives them all a fair run in preparing their story, breaches are rare.

    Why am I raising this now? Because a study in this week’s print journal—on the effects of caffeine in pregnancy (doi:10.1136/bmj.a2332)—was reported in the press before we published it online (2 November Sunday Times and others). This report wasn’t technically a breach of embargo because the press release hadn’t yet been issued, but it was publicity before publication. The study’s funder, the Food Standards Agency, had held a stakeholders meeting before we issued our embargoed press release. It was probably from this meeting that the study’s findings, and the government’s new guidelines on caffeine intake during pregnancy, were leaked.

    Was any great harm done? Not obviously. The FSA had to cancel its press conference but the message put out by the media was largely correct. Why then do journals bother with embargoes, and with the associated efforts to put the fear of god into authors about not talking to the press before publication? It’s not only to avoid being scooped by the media. Our responsibility is to doctors, patients, and the public. Apart from wanting to give journalists enough time and information to get the story right, we want readers to be able to check the research (which is open access) and any linked commentary (doi:10.1136/bmj.a2316) for themselves.

    Authors rarely breach embargoes: they have too much at stake. More often, a breach occurs because of differences between the journal and the research funder, as happened last time at the BMJ (1996;313:307-8). In a blog (http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj), Terrence Collis at the FSA shares his frustrations about journal peer review, with which I sympathise. “Waiting around for journals to decide whether they are going to publish is a real pain,” he says. “Having less control of the timetable seems a high price to pay for the glory of prestigious publication even in the BMJ.” At just under five weeks from submission to publication (some of that time used by the authors to make revisions), it’s hard to see how we could have moved faster and still have done a proper job. Perhaps the FSA, with its responsibilities to consumers and with its own advisory committee to provide peer review, should dispense with journal publication, although Collis clearly appreciates the additional authority that journals give. “We should be able to work out between us how to get the best of both worlds,” he says. For us this means fast and efficient peer review and close liaison with authors, funders, and journalists. It also means continuing to use embargoes, which we still think is the best way to serve doctors, patients, the public, journalists, and, yes, funders and journals too.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2852

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