July 24, 2007

PNAS embargo policies considered annoying

Like most high-profile scientific journals, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America sends journalists preview copies of forthcoming articles, which they are instructed to treat as "under embargo" until a designated time.

The idea is to allow the journalists to study the article in advance, get quotes from experts, and prepare a story that can run at the same time that the scientific article actually "appears" (which these days generally means release on the web in advance of the pro forma paper publication).

For some reason, PNAS seems to schedule its "embargoes" to expire several days before the article is actually available to the public. (Perhaps some other journals do this too, but I haven't seen it.) I mentioned an instance of this a couple of months ago in the case of Dediu and Ladd's paper on possible gene/tone connections, and I've experienced it silently quite a few other times.

The most recent case is some interesting-looking work by Jay McClelland and others on an application of machine-learning techniques to induction of vowel categories in motherese. Although this is now hitting the popular press, the paper in question isn't on the PNAS "Early Edition" yet. If previous practice is a guide, it'll appear some time later this week, perhaps as late as Thursday or Friday.

This is manifestly unfair to bloggers. We work faster than journalists do, but we don't have time machines. The way PNAS plays the game, the old media get several days to tell the story their way, before we even see the original paper.

Let me be clear -- I don't in any way oppose the embargo concept. It's a Bad Thing to have journalists "explaining" a putative scientific result, when there's no way for people to get access to details about the research in question.

The worst case is when there's never any paper at all, just a mass journalistic confusion-fest like the "email lowers IQ more than pot" or "20 words make up a third of teenagers' speech" or "cows have regional dialects" foofaraws. Not far behind is the egregious misrepresentation of leaked drafts of politically-sensitive scientific reviews.

But if you delay public access to a paper until several days after the press has had a chance to "explain" it, you're taking a step in that same bad direction. So, PNAS, shape up and fly right!

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 24, 2007 06:52 AM