Journals and the Media

Journals' interactions with media should balance competing priorities. The general public has a legitimate interest in all journal content and is entitled to important information within a reasonable amount of time, and editors have a responsibility to facilitate that. However, media reports of scientific research before it has been peer-reviewed and fully vetted may lead to dissemination of inaccurate or premature conclusions, and doctors in practice need to have research reports available in full detail before they can advise patients about the reports' conclusions.

An embargo system has been established in some countries and by some journals to assist this balance, and to prevent publication of stories in the general media before publication of the original research in the journal. For the media, the embargo creates a “level playing field,” which most reporters and writers appreciate since it minimizes the pressure on them to publish stories before competitors when they have not had time to prepare carefully. Consistency in the timing of public release of biomedical information is also important in minimizing economic chaos, since some articles contain information that has potential to influence financial markets. The ICMJE acknowledges criticisms of embargo systems as being self-serving of journals' interests and an impediment to rapid dissemination of scientific information, but believes the benefits of the systems outweigh their harms.

The following principles apply equally to print and electronic publishing and may be useful to editors as they seek to establish policies on interactions with the media:

  • Editors can foster the orderly transmission of medical information from researchers, through peer-reviewed journals, to the public. This can be accomplished by an agreement with authors that they will not publicize their work while their manuscript is under consideration or awaiting publication and an agreement with the media that they will not release stories before publication of the original research in the journal, in return for which the journal will cooperate with them in preparing accurate stories by issuing, for example, a press release.
  • Editors need to keep in mind that an embargo system works on the honor system—no formal enforcement or policing mechanism exists. The decision of a significant number of media outlets or biomedical journals not to respect the embargo system would lead to its rapid dissolution.
  • Notwithstanding authors' belief in their work, very little medical research has such clear and urgently important clinical implications for the public's health that the news must be released before full publication in a journal. When such exceptional circumstances occur, the appropriate authorities responsible for public health should decide whether to disseminate information to physicians and the media in advance and should be responsible for this decision. If the author and the appropriate authorities wish to have a manuscript considered by a particular journal, the editor should be consulted before any public release. If editors acknowledge the need for immediate release, they should waive their policies limiting prepublication publicity.
  • Policies designed to limit prepublication publicity should not apply to accounts in the media of presentations at scientific meetings or to the abstracts from these meetings (see Duplicate Publication). Researchers who present their work at a scientific meeting should feel free to discuss their presentations with reporters but should be discouraged from offering more detail about their study than was presented in the talk, or should consider how giving such detail might diminish the priority journal editors assign to their work (see Duplicate Publication).
  • When an article is close to being published, editors or journal staff should help the media prepare accurate reports by providing news releases, answering questions, supplying advance copies of the article, or referring reporters to appropriate experts. This assistance should be contingent on the media's cooperation in timing the release of a story to coincide with publication of the article.

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