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[This post is based on the editorial in the October issue — the full text can be accessed here, available for free to all registered users. We welcome feedback on our editorials in the comments section below.]

Press embargoes of research articles can serve journals, researchers and journalists — as long as everyone plays by, and understands, the rules.

No one likes to open the pages of their favourite chemistry journal and find that someone else has published the work that they are feverishly rushing to complete. Scientists have worried about being scooped since the time of Newton and Liebnitz, and probably before that too.

High-profile journals are notoriously as worried — if not more so — about being scooped as the researchers hoping to publish their work in them. But it’s not just other research groups that journals are looking over their shoulder for; they are also concerned that over-eager journalists may report the work before the peer-reviewed article has been published. Not only does this reduce the novelty and impact of the journal’s article, but it can lead to inaccurate reporting if journalists and their expert sources cannot see the paper in question.

This is one of the reasons why many journals have an embargo policy, releasing copies of their articles to journalists before they are due to be published. In return for this service, journalists agree to abide by an embargo: they will not publish their stories before an agreed time and date. This system has been in place for some time, but it is not without its critics; interested readers can follow the debate and keep up to date with broken embargoes at the Embargo Watch blog.

We routinely make our papers available to members of the press about a week before they are published. During this embargo period, authors are allowed — encouraged — to speak to any journalists who contact them. At other times before the publication date, however, this is discouraged and, as outlined below, could result in a paper not being published. Our policy states: “Material submitted to Nature journals must not be discussed with the media […]. We reserve the right to halt the consideration or publication of a paper if this condition is broken.”

Communicating with other scientists, through such mechanisms as conference presentations, preprint servers or departmental seminars, is not prohibited. The policy continues “Nature journals do not wish to hinder communication between scientists.” Of course, journalists may attend conferences or browse preprint servers and find stories that way. In these relatively rare cases, journalists have not agreed to any embargo and may therefore publish stories, but we ask that our authors do not discuss their work or seek to encourage premature publication.

Mainstream press coverage of science is often criticised for a number of perceived failings, a common one being an overreliance on press releases. But well-written and responsible press releases should act as a useful starting point on which journalists can base their own articles. The positive side of embargoes and press releases are that they can help to give journalists time to not only research topics they may not have covered before, but also crucially to canvass other experts in the area to present a balanced story.

Although the NPG embargo policy may seem harsh on first inspection, it is in place for good reasons and the appropriate use of accurate, embargoed press releases offers benefits to all parties — researchers, journalists and journals — alike.