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Why science reporters were thrown for a loop this week

The breach of a popular online service for science journalists calls attention to news embargoes.

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If you happen to follow a critical mass of science journalists on Twitter, you might have picked up on something about a hack, embargoes, and something called EurekAlert!. 

If that sounds like gibberish to you, you're not alone. 

Here's what everyone is talking about: EurekAlert! is a service that provides about 12,000 accredited journalists with access to the scientific studies before being revealed to the public. Those materials are stored in a password-protected file with a timestamp aligned with the publication of the scientific paper. Subscribing journalists can access those files with the promise that we will not reveal their contents to the public before the timestamp, known in the news industry as an embargo, has passed.

Yes, that means that we knew about our neighborly exoplanet Proxima b and 'Game of Thrones' ants before you did, by a few days.

Journalists who subscribe to EurekAlert! agree to keep the embargoed content to themselves until the stated time, or else face banishment for up to six months. The agreement we must sign to receive a login states: "I recognize that a breach of the EurekAlert! embargo provisions may result in the suspension of not only my EurekAlert! access and privileges, but for all individuals employed by my news organization, where applicable." 

The service marked its 20th birthday in May. But on September 13, 2016, that all broke down.

Someone – we don't yet know who – decided that EurekAlert!'s password-protected site was worth hacking into and did so on Sept. 9, according to a EurekAlert! statement. 

In response, the company shut down the entire site. And that had the effect of, as Popular Science's Mary Beth Griggs put it, "sending reporters everywhere into minor states of panic as papers, press releases and contact information for scientific sources suddenly went from being a click away to being...many more clicks away. Maybe even some phone calls."

(It is important to note that while EurekAlert! is down, reporters still have access to some embargoed studies as normal. Some journals have their own embargo-filled entities, separate from catch-all EurekAlert!. And, there's always science reporting that isn't whetted to the embargo system.)

EurekAlert!

While the hacker's motivations are unclear, there have been a few clues.

Philipp Hummel, science editor at the German publication Die Welt, had been temporarily blocked from embargoed material on EurekAlert! after breaking an embargo, and the hackers actually contacted him, offering access to the embargoed materials.

The hacker offered two then-embargoed news releases to Mr. Hummel: "Surgeons trial smart glasses for mid-op note taking" and "Associations between television, early childhood and social impairment during adolescence."

Hummel grudgingly tipped off EurekAlert! to the hack when the hacker gave him login information for the site that actually worked. 

"Still now, I’m not really totally convinced that I’m doing the right thing," Hummel said in an interview with The Scientist's Tracy Vence. He went on to explain that he could understand the motivation of the hacker (providing his assumption was correct) to disrupt the embargo system.

Science journalists have a love-hate relationship with embargoes. 

Embargoes allow writers to spend more time reading the research papers and understanding the underlying science. The idea is that giving journalists a few days to work on the story reduces the chances of getting it wrong.

But, as Undark.org media critic Paul Raeburn told Wired in May, "Embargoes are hard to resist." And this may mean that reporters feel like they have to report on something just because it is highlighted by EurekAlert!, for fear of missing something their competitors cover. So EurekAlert! is likely shaping the science news that ends up in your Google News feed, on the front page of the newspaper, or in your Facebook feed.

"Embargoes may seem like a dry and arcane topic, but when it comes to science, they play a central role in what the public finds out about, and when they find out about it," Ivan Oransky, medical journalist, professor, physician, and creator of the blog EmbargoWatch told Vocativ. "In exchange for time and access, journalists agree to wait to report on studies until journals say they can. What emerges is a very warped sense of how science works."

And, as Vocativ's Joshua A. Krisch points out, withholding key discoveries until an embargo time could have ethical issues, particularly with medical news.

"There are certainly people who would like to see embargoes go the way of the dodo," Oransky said.

But, for now, EurekAlert! and its embargoed material likely will be sticking around – once it's back online.

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