Kill the post-embargo publication window

I can’t find the paper you’ve written about and your link doesn’t work. What’s going on? 

I keep having to answer this question and it’s getting tiresome (although, as we’ll see, this no fault of the people who ask it). This post is borne of that frustration.

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At the bottom of every piece I write about peer-reviewed research (which is most of them), I include a citation for the paper in question and a link. This is good practice. Every journalist should, in theory, do it. The link is almost always to a DOI number rather than to the journal page. And often, those links don’t work. This post explains why and I will link to it from every single post I write with massive bold letters.

A lot of the stories I write are embargoed – this means that people can only publish their pieces about the story at a certain point in time. However, even after the embargo lifts, there is often a time gap before the journal in question actually publishes the paper and before the DOI listing works. For some journals, this time is negligible – Nature and Science, for example, reliably have their papers up within minutes or hours of the embargo lift. For others, it can be much longer. PNAS is the most obvious example – I’ve waited for up to two weeks before the paper actually went online after it made the news. The record so far is several months for a Journal of Zoology paper.

It’s very important to realise this because at the point when most journalists write their pieces, there is no paper to link to. What they’d have to do is to go back to the piece after it’s been published and retrospectively add a link. Which, and I speak from personal experience, is an absolute pain in the nethers. By then, we’ve got other things to do and (as with PNAS) it’s never entirely clear when the paper is actually going to go live.

The alternative, then, is to do what I do, which is to provide the DOI and as full a citation as possible so that when the paper does come online, readers will at least be able to find it.

That’s not ideal however, because people still get confused when they search for something that isn’t actually out yet. I get a lot of comments to this effect. Of course, the best solution would be to totally eliminate the gap between embargo and publication so that the public can actually see the paper (or, at least, the abstract) when the news hits.

I’ve written about embargoes before (and thrilled to see that Ivan Oransky has started an Embargo Watch blog). They’re controversial but on balance, I’m favourable towards them. The big change I want to see is the extinction of the post-embargo publication gap. It’s existence is a vestigial leftover from the age where journalists acted as sources of authority and it’s a complete anathema to the internet world.

People expect to be able to tumble down the rabbit-hole of links to find original sources and check them out for themselves, if they are so inclined. These outmoded policies mean that the rabbit hole ends in 404 purgatory.

This practice punishes scientists who are unable to see, comment on, or discuss work that is outed in the mainstream media, it punishes journalists who are trying to link to original sources, and it punishes readers who are inquisitive and skeptical enough to try to verify the information they read. None of these is acceptable.

More on journalism at Not Exactly Rocket Science:

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