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The embargo October 5, 2010

Posted by Simon in Uncategorized.
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I’ve touched on this briefly before, but now I’m going to look at the events surrounding the publication of the initial ALH84001 paper in more detail. It presents an interesting case study on the embargo of scientific papers. Once again, I’m drawing primarily on Vincent Kiernan’s incredibly well-researched paper from Public Understanding of Science.

David McKay and his team from NASA submitted their paper to Science in April 1996. The editors realised how significant it was, and restricted access to it by the journal’s staff in order to limit any leaks. After a few revisions, the paper was accepted in July, with publication planned for the 16 August issue.

NASA’s management pushed for an earlier publication date, in order to limit leaks and avoid a news clash with a big political convention scheduled for the week of 16 July, but the authors couldn’t make their final revisions in time to get it published earlier.

The normal Science embargo process provides journalists with copies of papers one week before they are published, but NASA was so worried about leaks that they convinced Science to only tell journalists three days prior to publication. A press conference was scheduled for 15 August, the day before publication.

In late July and early August, things started to ramp up. Debates raged about how to word press releases – was the ALH84001 evidence “circumstantial” or did it “strongly suggest” Martian life? There were several briefings at the White House, rumours began to circulate about the research, and eventually a small piece about ALH84001 appeared in the 5 August issue of the small publication Space News. A reporter from CBS News noticed it and contacted Science on 6 August.  They tried to convince the reporter to sit on the story, but other journalists were picking up the scent and it became clear that something had to give. By the end of day, Science issued a press release describing the research and lifted the embargo.

NASA had tried to convince Science to stop the journalists from publishing early – but only because they were planning an early press conference for the next day, and their research team was in transit to Washington and wouldn’t be available to the media. This led to some fairly inaccurate stories about the research being circulated – CNN reported that the fossilised bacteria looks like maggots, without mentioning that they were thousands of times smaller than maggots!

The story hit the prime time news on 6 August, the NASA press conference happened the next day, and President Clinton released statement. And then the fun began!

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