By Alan Chodos
Something interesting is happening out there in the solar system, but I'm not allowed to tell you what it is. The scientists who made the discovery have submitted a paper on the subject to Nature, and that august journal has a strict embargo policy forbidding any public release of the information before it appears in print in their magazine. Were I to reveal what I know, Nature would reject the paper automatically, irrespective of its scientific merits.
Both Science and Nature, the twin titans of periodical scientific publication, adhere to this absolutist position, which has been the occasion for controversy in the past. For example, in 1996 at a joint meeting of the APS and AAPT, a speaker had to decline the opportunity to answer some questions about his work at a press conference immediately after his talk, because the work was also described in a paper that had been submitted to Science. Phillip F. Schewe of AIP's Public Information Division commented at the time that this "amounts to an act of extortion: forego a press conference or possibly forfeit your paper in Science." There are many other examples of bizarre consequences of these embargoes, some of which you can read about in a series of articles in (of all places) Science, vol. 282, pp. 860-869 (1998).
The policy of the Physical Review and Physical Review Letters, on the other hand, has long been the opposite of that of Science and Nature. David Lazarus, then editor-in-chief of the APS, wrote in a 1984 editorial in PRL: "It is the expressed policy of the Society to encourage widespread and timely dissemination of the results of research in physics to the public at large, particularly in view of the fact that much research is funded by public agencies. Accordingly, newspaper, television, and radio accounts of research-even if prepared by the research team as news releases-are not to be counted as inhibitions against acceptance of papers for our journals."
This policy is even more relevant today than when Lazarus enunciated it. One of the important lessons of the intervening years is how essential it is for scientists to communicate what they do to the general public, a process that both improves the health of the scientific enterprise and enriches the life of the nation. In addition to its flexible policy on research publication, the APS is actively promoting public awareness of physics through its office of Public Information, the activities of its media coordinator, and its new web site (soon to be launched) aimed at bringing the importance and excitement of physics to the public.
In this context, the embargo imposed by Science and Nature is clearly outmoded and counterproductive. But in the absence of meaningful opposition, the editors of these journals will continue to flex their muscles in the uncritical belief that the embargo enhances the value of what they publish. It is time for the scientific community to inform them otherwise.
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