APS News

Viewpoint

Swimming Against the Tide

Diligent readers of APS News may recall a "Viewpoint" in last year's August/September issue entitled "End the Embargo", which took Science and Nature to task for their strict policy of forbidding news coverage on research submitted to them for publication, until the article actually appeared in print. The "Viewpoint" contrasted this with the policy of APS that actively encourages news about physics in the media, regardless of whether the peer-reviewed version has yet seen the light of day.

In January, events conspired to produce a head-to-head clash between these two policies, with a result that, at least in this writer's opinion, further exposed how silly, artificial and contradictory the embargo idea is. Two papers were slated for near-simultaneous publication, one in Nature and the other in Physical Review Letters. The two different groups had each made essentially the same experimental breakthrough, bringing a light signal to a complete halt in a specially prepared medium, and then releasing it again with the information it carried intact. The New York Times got wind of this story, and featured it on the front page on January 18, almost 2 weeks before the PRL publication date. The PRL group, leaders Ron Walsworth and Mikhail Lukin at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, were free to talk about their results, and the news story concentrated mainly on their work. The leader of the other group, Dr. Lene Vestergaard Hau, was not in the same position. "Citing restrictions imposed by the journal Nature, where her report is to appear, Dr. Hau refused to discuss her work in detail," according to the story in the Times. It is cause for amazement and dismay that scientists, who after all are providing the material on which the journals depend, will voluntarily submit to the whims of editorial policy even when they are made to suffer thereby.

That's almost the end of the tale-Dr. Hau gets muzzled by Nature's embargo. But there is one more wrinkle: later the same day that the Times story appeared, Nature issued the following statement, referring to its own press release about Dr. Hau's paper: "Effective immediately, Nature is lifting the embargo on THIS STORY ONLY. Reports have already appeared concerning a similar paper published in another journal, and making mention of the Nature study. In view of the existence of the other, unembargoed, paper, we have decided it is in everybody's interest for the two studies to be discussed together. Please note, however, that this is an exceptional case. In general, we will not lift an embargo on a paper just because one media source has mentioned it."

Ironically, Nature's press release begins: "Stopping light sounds like the equivalent of King Canute's attempt to halt the incoming tide on an English beach." The analogy with King Canute is equally appropriate to Nature's own embargo policy. Stopping the tide on an English beach is no more difficult than shoring up a monopolistic practice in the face of genuine competition.

-Alan Chodos


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette