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Ethical and Legal Considerations

Annette Flanagin

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A news embargo is an agreement between journals and news reporters and their organizations not to report information contained in a manuscript that has been accepted but not yet published until a specified date and time in exchange for advance access to the information. Among medical journals, the embargo system may have been initiated by Morris Fishbein, MD, editor of JAMA between 1924 and 1949.29

As an example, the standard embargo date and time for JAMA is 3 pm central time on the day before the journal’s cover date (issue publication date). Qualified journalists are given early access to the journal online via a password-protected website for the news media (usually 5 days before issue publication date). During this time, the embargo is intended to provide competitive news reporters an equal amount of access and time to research and prepare their news stories. However, those news reports cannot be released until the embargo has lifted. JAMA is printed and mailed in advance of the cover date, so that physicians can read pertinent journal articles before they are reported in the news media and before patients begin asking them questions after reading or viewing the news coverage.22

The news embargo has been criticized for being overly restrictive, delaying public access to information, and serving the self-interest of journals.25 However, the embargo system is intended to create a level playing field for journalists to prepare accurate and complete news stories and to maintain consistency in the timing of release of scientific information to the public and help prevent confusion that may result from sporadic reporting on the same study at different dates and times. According to the ICMJE, such consistency of timing helps to minimize economic chaos surrounding those articles that contain information that may influence financial markets.20

On occasion, a news reporter or organization may break an embargo and report on information from a peer-reviewed journal article before the embargo is lifted, either unintentionally (owing to miscommunication or misunderstanding) or intentionally, to scoop competitors.29,30 The rare intentional embargo break is a serious breach of trust and can result in the journal applying sanctions against the reporter and the news organization. Such sanctions may include barring the reporter, and perhaps the news organization, from receiving news releases and advance access to journal content and declining requests for interviews, access to authors, or other assistance.

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