Embargo Breaks in the Information Economy


Ivan Oransky is a veteran science journalist and editor, as well as an active commentator of the field as a journalism professor at New York University, and most recently, as author of Embargo Watch. You can read more about his project, but for a little over six months, Oransky has enlisted his Twitter followers and other sharp eyes to spot instances where the over-eager press, an oblivious Twitterer, or another internet publisher has released science, technology, or health information ahead of the deadline put in place by its supporting institution(s).
Runners Take Your Mark

While the stated purpose of an embargo is to give journalists the time to read a study and seek comments before the official

publication date, these publishing restrictions are often treated inconsistently by the institutions that issue them, media outlets, and journalists.

I would like to examine embargoes as economic brakes in a system of information production, which we can situate within the information economy. While some optimistic digital theorists such as Yochai Benkler (Wealth of Networks) would have us believe that information produced within a peer network will lead to a radical redistribution of wealth and control among producers, embargoes are still one of the mechanisms which centralize information distribution to particular journalists.

Unlike a can of Coke, which can be taken away and consumed by one person, and unlike a common pasture, which can be used by all until the grass is eaten, information is not rivalrous or excludable. Once it’s out in the wild, it can be widely distributed without ever being used up.

I would argue that embargoes serve to construct value for a given piece of information, which it has the danger of losing as soon as it is available to anyone. A piece of information, such as a new scientific study, has such a high fixed cost to produce, but reproducing and distributing that information is much cheaper. Therefore, where an embargo does not succeed in leveling the playing field for journalists, it does serve the purpose of inflating or maintaining the value of a piece of information by the institution that claims control of it.

Embargo Watch teaches us that tamping the flow of information has become increasingly difficult. Does a Tweet constitute an embargo break? A blog post? Furthermore, institutions aren’t so sure if they want to enforce embargoes when over-excited media coverage opens the gates, perhaps raising the value of the information more than when it was restricted.

With embargoes looking like an ever more shaky barrier against the release of information, I question whether they do anything more than create artificial value to maintain control over information distribution. The networked information economy no longer supports a model of news in which a few large media outlets reported daily on information from major information producers, such as large medical journals.

In a future post, I’ll talk about some reasons why embargoes might be broken.


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