Science reporters and bloggers are always looking for ways to stay abreast of new and forthcoming findings from the research community. One way to do that is to register with an online science news service called EurekAlert!, which is run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). But the changing face of science news is creating some interesting problems for the service – and giving them a chance to take the lead on an important question: who gets access to science news? [Note: this post has been updated, see below.]
What is EurekAlert?
EurekAlert (I’ll leave the exclamation point off from here on out) essentially serves as an online bulletin board. Public information officers (PIOs) from research institutions (e.g., universities, journals, government agencies, etc.) can join EurekAlert and post news releases or other information about recent or forthcoming research news. This news could be about grant awards, patents or journal articles – including embargoed journal articles.
Science reporters and editors can also join EurekAlert. This gives them access to all of the material that PIOs post there, including contact information for relevant researchers and embargoed news releases about forthcoming journal articles. (If you’re unfamiliar with embargoes, here’s a primer.)
When it works, EurekAlert is a win-win: PIOs can share information with the reporters they want to reach, and reporters can find out about science stories they may want to cover.
Full disclosure: I’ve worked with EurekAlert for years in my capacity as a university PIO, and I’ve found it easy to work with. The user interface is great, and it gives me the ability to reach reporters who I might not have known about otherwise. So, as a PIO, I give it two thumbs up.
But I recently learned that a science blogger I know was denied when she tried to register as a reporter, despite the fact that she writes for a large, internationally-known news site. That seemed odd to me, so I did two things: I contacted EurekAlert to ask about it, and I posted a question on Twitter. Here’s what I posted: “Reporters/bloggers: have you tried to register with EurekAlert! and been turned down? Please let me know.”
I wasn’t prepared for the response I got. There were a lot of responses on Twitter, and quite a few more via direct message and email. A lot of science writers – bloggers and freelance reporters – have been denied access by EurekAlert. Why were they denied? Some of them were denied because they were also graduate students. Some, because they were also active members of the research community. Some, because their blogs are supported by nonprofit organizations, rather than conventional news companies. Some, because they have other jobs on the side. This surprised me – a lot of these folks are science writers whose work I admire.
But what was even more surprising was that some of the responses I got were from people who write for major news outlets. They requested anonymity, and I’ll respect that. But trust me when I say that you probably know who some of these writers are, and you definitely know the outlets they write for.
This didn’t make sense to me. As a PIO, I want these people to see the news releases, etc., that I post to EurekAlert. So what gives?
I asked EurekAlert why a well-regarded science blogger was denied access to the service, and got a prompt response. “I’d be more than happy to give you a bit of background on how EurekAlert! evaluates reporter registrations. EurekAlert! permits reporters, bloggers and freelancers to register for embargoed news provided they meet certain criteria. Reporters must be working on short-term daily deadlines, and must not hold any ineligible dual affiliations, such as researcher, lobbyist, financial consultant or analyst, student, manuscript editor, PIO, or PR representative. In short, reporters and freelancers must be full-time journalists. News outlets must be geared toward providing a primarily public audience with original science news generated by the registered reporter. Freelancers are required to provide us with three clips from within the last six months.”
I followed up, because I was curious about why EurekAlert limits access to full-time reporters, and whether the service is concerned that good science writers are being left out because they don’t fit into traditional definitions of the news industry. Again, I got a prompt response: “The organizations that submit our news do so with the understanding that embargoed access is available to full-time journalists. This has been EurekAlert!’s longstanding policy. Research institutions do not typically provide embargoed research news to researchers at other organizations, and PIOs trust that in subscribing to our service, EurekAlert! would not violate that policy.”
I had one more question: “Could you explain to me a little further why writers who are also researchers don’t have access to embargoed material (assuming they agree to comply with embargoes)?”
EurekAlert’s response is that “Research organizations and peer reviewed journals do not typically share embargoed information with researchers affiliated with other organizations – that has been standard practice long before EurekAlert! was created. EurekAlert! adopted that policy so that we may be consistent with the policies of the organizations that subscribe to our service.”
This is not a new problem. The issue cropped up in 2010, when bloggers GrrlScientist (who writes for the Guardian and elsewhere) and Bora Zivkovic (then on staff at PLOS) hit stumbling blocks with EurekAlert and AAAS about the role of bloggers in science news. (EmbargoWatch did a nice write-up of those incidents.)
But while the problem is not new, it remains largely unaddressed.
The face of science news is changing. Or, to be more accurate, the face of science news has changed. Science news is no longer written solely by full-time reporters. The ranks of science writers who contribute meaningful work to the science news sphere now includes graduate students, researchers and part-time freelancers who make ends meet by working other jobs. It even includes PIOs (I still freelance occasionally, though I never cover anything related to the university I work for). And the distinction between science bloggers and science reporters is now virtually nonexistent. (Would anyone argue that the work appearing on National Geographic’s Phenomena blogs is not science journalism?)
This is the new normal. There are fewer full-time staff gigs available for science reporters than there were a decade ago. That means there are more freelancers out there. And a lot of freelancers will take side jobs to make ends meet. For example, they might design web sites or edit materials for a research society. Should they then be ineligible for access to embargoed materials?
Similarly, more active researchers are pursuing their own yen to write. Some of them are bloggers, but some are also freelance reporters (Rob Dunn, who I work with, is an obvious example). Should they also be ineligible for access to embargoed materials?
There will always be full-time science reporters, but a significant percentage of science news is now written by people that don’t fit that description – and that situation is unlikely to change.
That being the case, I think it is in the best interest of journals and research institutions to re-define who they grant access to under the embargo system – because the current system is leaving out some damn good writers and hampering the dissemination of science news. EurekAlert and AAAS are in a good position to launch that discussion. If they take a leadership role here, they could easily turn this problem into an opportunity to further their mission of advancing science and serving society.
UPDATE – A EurekAlert! staffer read the post and followed up with me. She made a point that is worth sharing, so I am including her comments here:
“It may have been a more balanced piece by including that we are technically bound by law, which prevents us from disseminating embargoed information to researchers and certain financial institutions – it’s not an arbitrary guideline, and even Ivan Oransky’s post comes out in favor of that law:
‘The SEC regulations to which Ginger refers — Regulation Fair Disclosure — are actually quite important, not only in their letter but in their spirit. A small but significant number of studies — mostly in the biomedical sciences — have the potential to move stock prices. To oversimplify: Trading on that information before it is public is considered insider trading, and organizations that help people do that can face stiff fines. That’s why the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) changed its conference embargo policy. In something called the ASCO effect, stock prices were mysteriously moving between the time that embargoed press material was released, and the embargo lifted. You can guess why. Adam Feuerstein, whom I profiled here, successfully pressed for changes to prevent that from happening.’
We do of course reassess our criteria and understand the changing media landscape. For instance, when bloggers first garnered more traction and readership as a source for science news, EurekAlert! did make those changes accordingly and created new guidelines for assessing bloggers. In changing any guidelines, the benefits must outweigh the dangers, and obviously take into account SEC regulations that we are bound by.”
That is a very fair point, and worth considering. However, it highlights the fact that the problem, as I noted above, is not specific to EurekAlert! — but is a problem with the embargo system. And it needs to be addressed. As Carl Zimmer stated in a recent Twitter conversation, “I find the embargo system to be cozy dysfunctionality. Once papers get through peer review, they should go online. Done.” I tend to agree.