Embargoes and the process of science

Last week I attended the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) Conference on Collective Behavior, which was really a huge amount of fun. I learned a ton of science (and that I basically know nothing about science — or rather, there is soooo much science to know), and had some very interesting discussion about… stuff. Why am I so cagey? Because the details of discussions at the conference are officially embargoed until the report is issued by the National Academies in spring.

This embargo concept is not entirely new to me, but coming as I do from a tribe that tries to post things on ArXiV as fast as possible, the idea that one should keep mum for a few months feels a bit strange. It makes a lot of sense — people presented posters on work in progress or partial results that they were still working on, and without an embargo there is a potential danger of getting scooped, which could inhibit the free and open sharing of ideas. I certainly felt more comfortable talking about (possibly half-baked) future research ideas, although that was primarily because I didn’t think the ecologist I was conversing with would care as much about stochastic gradient methods.

Embargoes seem to be the norm in Science because of… Science… and Nature… and PNAS. If you have a high-profile article to appear in one of those fancy journals, they want the credit for having chosen it/are the venue in which it appeared. Slapping up your preprint on ArXiV is not on, since it bursts the balloon (although Nature says “[n]either conference presentations nor posting on recognized preprint servers constitute prior publication”). This is newsworthy science, and there’s a relationship between the press, the academic press, and the research community that has been discussed at length.

I came across a blog called Embargo Watch that looks to see how the media/reporters breach the embargoes imposed by the publisher. Indeed, if you look at various embargo policies (even PLoS has one!) show that the embargo thing is really about controlling the news media’s description of the article prior to publication. There’s been a longstanding (un?)healthy debate about the value of embargoes. Personally, I’d prefer to see a someone who studies communication and science studies (like Marisa) do a more critical evaluation of the role of embargoes in enforcing particular constructions and interpretations of the scientific process, the role of power and control, and how researchers propagate and resist the tensions inherent in publishing in high-impact journals.

Regardless, I am following the embargo and keeping quiet while trying to process everything I learned last week. I guess I am glad the ArXiV is there for me — it’s a little more my speed. Actually, it may be a bit too speedy, but it works for now. I think people working in engineering, computer science, and mathematics might find the notion of an embargo somewhat puzzling, as I did. Does this concept even make sense in those fields?

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