Selective Leaking — Breaking Ingelfinger’s Rule

The government wants us to believe that Snowden is a very evil man because he is a “leaker,” but the government leaks the information that it wants the world to have, and keeps confidential the rest.  The double standard is obvious.

Scientific publishing has its own double standard as well.  In 1969, Franz J. Ingelfinger, as editor of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), set out two conditions for publication in the Journal:

(1) an embargo on articles and their content, when slated for publication in the NEJM, and

(2) a prohibition against duplicative publication or presentation of the substance of the article in any other journal or media source.

These conditions became known as the Ingelfinger rule, a rule that authors were willing to agree to in advance because they received a prestigious publication in the NEJM, and attention from the media because of that publication. The “rule” has been under relentless criticism, but has been defended in a modified form by subsequent NEJM editors. See Arnold S. Relman, “The Ingelfinger Rule,” 305 New Engl. J. Med. 824 (1981); Arnold S. Relman, “More on the Ingelfinger Rule,” 318 New Engl. J. Med. 1125 (1988); Marcia Angell & Jerome P. Kassirer, “The Ingelfinger Rule Revisited,” 325 New Engl. J. Med. 1371 (1991).  Most journals have followed the lead of the NEJM by implementing a similar set of conditions on publication.

The Ingelfinger Rule could be quite pointy when thrust into a researcher’s face.  I recall well how my cousin, conducting research on viral diseases, ran into the Rule, when his laboratory uncovered important information about the transmission of HIV. He and his colleagues wrote up their work, which was accepted by the NEJM, but the Centers for Disease Control felt that the information needed to be made public immediately.  The NEJM threatened to withdraw publication, and the intervention of a medical school dean was ultimately required to broker a compromise that allowed the authors and the NEJM to keep the publication.  See Joseph E. Fitzgibbon, Sunanda Gaur, Lawrence D. Frenkel, Fabienne Laraque, Brian R. Edlin, and Donald T. Dubin, “Transmission from one child to another of Human Immunodeficiency Virus type 1 with a zidovudine-resistance mutation,” 329 New Engl. J. Med. 1835 (1993).

In a recent blog post, scientist Dr. David Schwartz, writes about a soon-to-be published observational study of autism and environmental exposures.  See David Schwartz, “New Study Expected to Impugn Pesticides, But Is It Legit?” (June 20, 2014).  Dr. Schwartz explains:

“A new epidemiological study linking autism with pesticide exposure is expected to surface soon, according to our sources in the scientific community. The study was commissioned by Childhood Autism Risks from Genes and Environment (CHARGE). We anticipate that the mainstream media and some in the scientific community will latch onto the study because the rising rate of autism is alarming, and the public is understandably searching for answers. But we would caution the scientific community, the media, and the public to approach the study with skepticism instead of automatically buying into the results.

Speaking about the results, ahead of publication in a recent video, (posted on June 10, 2014) the senior author, Dr. Hertz-Picciotto, states: “there were associations with several classes of pesticides.” She goes on to state: “this is actually the third study to show some link with the organophosphates and autism risk.” I was surprised to see a study author talking publicly about the results of an embargoed study, since other scientists and journalists are precluded from talking about the study until after its publication.”

Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto is the principal investigator of the study, which is funded by the federal government, THE CHARGE STUDY: CHILDHOOD AUTISM RISKS FROM GENETICS AND THE ENVIRONMENT (2R01ES015359-06).  University of California at Davis is the funded institution. The study is due to be published in the Environmental Health Perspectives, (EHP) but according to Dr. Schwartz, the paper is still under embargo, and it does not appear on the EHP website, even in the advance of publication page. Unlike Dr. Hertz-Picciotto, Dr. Schwartz observed the embargo and did not comment upon the substance of the paper.  What is regrettable is that the EHP tolerates this selective leaking of the paper’s content, by its author, in apparent violation of its embargo policy. Perhaps everyone should join in and disregard the policy to keep the discussion balanced and to permit all sides to be heard.

Autism is a serious concern, which has been the subject of a great deal of biased and confounded research, and advocacy in courtrooms and elsewhere. The thimerosal-autism scare is still playing out in Vaccine court. Whatever the merits or demerits of Hertz-Picciotto’s study, soon to be published, what is disturbing is the cavalier breaking of the embargo by the principal investigator, on YouTube of all places.  Given the anxiety and concern over autism, scrupulous adherence to the the journal’s policies would have seemed prudent, to give serious scientific journalists a chance to comment critically on the paper at issue.

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