APS News

Journal Embargo Policies Spark Controversy

The APS and the American Institute of Physics (AIP) found themselves at odds in April with editors at Science magazine regarding the latter's embargo policy for articles accepted for future publication. The policy is similar to that of Nature: acceptance of a scientific paper is conditional upon the nondisclosure of the paper's details to journalists.

The conflict began when Philip F. Schewe, who heads APS meeting publicity for AIP's Public Information Division, noticed an interesting abstract on producing intense laser light for the 1996 APS/AAPT Joint Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana. He contacted the invited speaker about the possibility of organizing a press conference on the subject. But the speaker had already submitted an article to Science on the topic, and the magazine advised him that participation in a press conference might compromise the likelihood of his article being accepted for publication. Unwilling to risk having his article pulled, the speaker declined Shewe's offer.

"In my opinion, the action of the Science editor amounts to an act of extortion: forego a press conference or possibly forfeit your paper in Science," said Schewe. "It's a shame that things have come to this: a magazine telling a scientist that it's okay to report on an important experiment at a professional meeting, but that he is forbidden to answer a few questions about his talk in an adjoining room immediately afterwards."

The issue of prior restraint is much more far-reaching than the APS/AAPT Joint Meeting. It has long been a source of contention between journal editors and science reporters, who feel their coverage of the hottest topics is often hampered by the refusal of scientists to talk to them out of fear that their accompanying papers will be withdrawn from publication. On April 15, the DC Science Writers Association sponsored a forum on journal embargoes, attended by reporters, editors, public information officers and featuring a panel discussion with Nature's North American editor and Science's managing editor.

At least one participant suggested alternative policies that might protect the interests of all parties. Physical Review Letters, for example, has policy which stipulates that as long as a paper is accepted for publication, it can be mentioned in a newspaper or magazine as an upcoming article in the journal. However, there was no indication following the event that either Science or Nature would consider changing or improving their existing embargo policies.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin