Embargoed bedbug study comes with a bite

Brenda Goodman

About Brenda Goodman

Brenda Goodman (@GoodmanBrenda), an Atlanta-based freelancer, is AHCJ’s topic leader on medical studies, curating related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on medical study resources and tip sheets at brenda@healthjournalism.org.

Image by UGA College of Ag via flickr.

Recently, as part of a package of studies sent to reporters in advance of their annual meeting, the American Chemical Society put out an embargoed press release on a study of bedbug genes.

The study details how researchers at the University of Kentucky surveyed the entire genomes of 21 different bedbug populations collected from large cities in the Midwest.

They discovered that 14 genes work in various combinations to thwart a type of chemical that has commonly been used to kill the blood-sucking critters. What’s even more fascinating is that most of these genes are found in the insects’ tough outer shell, or cuticle. They code for proteins that pump the chemicals out of their bodies or break their molecular bonds, rendering the agents harmless.

Bedbugs, perhaps more than other insects, are masters at becoming resistant to the chemicals we use to try to kill them. That’s thought to be a major reason why they have made a comeback in homes and hotels across the country. This study went a long way toward showing why they’re so hardy and how we might be able to develop better methods to control them in the future.

The problem is that this all sounds a bit familiar to regular readers of Scientific Reports, a research publication from the publishers of Nature.

Scientific Reports published the same research on March 14.

This is a bit backwards from the way studies are usually presented to reporters and to the public. Typically, studies are first presented at conferences and then they are submitted later for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

There is a little dance researchers do to try to ensure their work gets noticed in both settings. At meetings, they give us the first glimpse of a new study. It’s the freshest information, but it’s usually not always the last word. For that, they tell us, we have to wait for peer-reviewed publication.

This two-step also ensures that they’ll have something extra and new to offer a journal that they are asking to publish their work.

I contacted senior study author Subba Reddy Palli, Ph.D., a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky, and he confirmed that the research described in the press release and the Scientific Reports paper are the same.

He said the study authors “have been talking about this for months,” and that “it’s exactly the same thing. There’s nothing really new after that,” Palli said.

So it’s particularly mystifying that the American Chemical Society would choose to embargo information that was already in the public domain.

I thought maybe they had been duped. Maybe they had not known about the Scientific Reports study?

“I’m not sure if we did. We had several people preparing the press releases,” said Michael Woods, an ACS spokesman, in an interview on Friday afternoon.

I asked him if the American Chemical Society had an embargo policy and if so, if there were standards that governed the use of embargoes. When is it OK to ask reporters to hold off on publishing their stories?

“The only significance of those embargoes is that the embargoes coincide with the date and time of the presentation,” he said. “We don’t guarantee that the presentation is going to be totally new.”

That’s not entirely true. According to ACS’s guidelines for papers presented at the annual meeting, under no circumstances should a paper, meaning a study, “appear in print in a journal other than as a communication to the editor before presentation.”

That’s a policy followed by many scientific societies, and most take that requirement seriously. The American College of Cardiology yanked a high-profile presentation at its annual meeting in March after the study authors released their results in advance of the meeting.

It’s easy to understand the need for exclusivity here. Otherwise, why should scientists, doctors or reporters go to a meeting if the information they’re going to hear is old hat?

But venerable scientific societies like ACS, which is having its 246th annual meeting, certainly understand all this. And certainly they know when they’ve made a mistake.

But instead of tossing the presentation and the embargo, Woods said they were newsworthy and valid.

“We don’t know what the presenter is going to say,” he said, adding that study author Fang Zhu, who is presenting the research at the conference, might opt to present new findings that haven’t previously been published.

If that’s true, I asked, then “what is the basis of the press release?”

“The basis of the press release is an interview with the presenter telling us what the presenter plans to present,” Woods said.

Scientific research societies and research journals ostensibly use embargoes to give reporters time to get their stories ready for publication. The pro-embargo argument is that this levels the playing field for news organizations by giving the story to everyone at once. But it also falsely concentrates news coverage, giving the organization a raft of stories just when it would like to have them appear. And bedbug studies almost always generate big headlines.

It’s hard to imagine any other reason for sending out old research with new prohibitions against publication.

My colleague, Ivan Oransky, M.D., has written about the more cynical and sometimes just silly rationales for embargoes (remember the 38-minute embargo?) on his blog Embargo Watch.

This one should certainly find a spot on the wall of shame.