It’s happened again, the bane of every science journalist’s existence. Another haunting by the vengeful ghost of Dr. Franz J. Ingelfinger.
I was covering a conference on contraceptive technology the other day, the only reporter (and practically the only male) among several hundred women’s health providers. This was a continuing medical education (CME) meeting, and like most CME meetings, it was very light on actual news. That’s why I was looking forward to the “late breakers” session, where the results of some new studies would be announced.
Moments before the start of this session, I was ushered toward the podium, because one of the speakers wanted to have a word with me. He said that he had submitted his study to a journal, so I would not be permitted to report on it. I tried to explain to him that my article could not, would not jeopardize publication of his study, but he wouldn’t listen. Instead, he said that unless I agreed not to write about his study, he simply wouldn’t deliver his talk. Against my better judgment I agreed, but I was definitely not happy about it.
In an email to the researcher I wrote that I believed he was misinterpreting the “Ingelfinger Rule.” Dr. Franz J. Ingelfinger, (1910-1980) was editor of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) from 1967 to 1977. During his tenure, he decreed that, for an article to be published in his journal, it must not previously have appeared elsewhere. The rule prohibited authors from releasing their results to the news media before the date they were published in the journal. A small number of other journals (such as JAMA) developed similar policies, and the net result is that scientists often are afraid to talk to reporters for fear that they’ll lose the opportunity to publish in JAMA or NEJM (or Nature, Cell, or Science).
But the actual Ingelfinger Rule is not nearly as draconian as many investigators fear. Here’s the relevant section from the NEJM author guidelines:
“Authors are expected to refrain from discussing their research with reporters prior to the Friday before publication. “The only exception is if an author presents research at a medical meeting. Responding to media inquiries at the meeting, or during the week following the meeting, will not jeopardize publication. We ask that authors follow these guidelines:
“Please do not discuss the fact that the research has been submitted or accepted for publication in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“Please do not distribute any copies of the manuscript, tables, or figures. (It is acceptable to use the materials in a presentation, but they should not be distributed.)
“Meeting organizers may promote an author’s presentation in a press release, plan a press conference, publish the abstract in a meeting proceedings, and/or post the presentation on their Web site. We ask that authors, their institutions, and other organizations sponsoring the research not do any further promotion of the presentation.”
Science and medical journalists often run into misinterpretations of the Ingelfinger Rule, and we discuss it frequently. Like me, many other reporters keep the passages I’ve quoted above in a file and ready to send to nervous investigators. I like to joke that maybe I should print laminated cards to hand to investigators, or maybe I should just have that darn Ingelfinger rule tattooed to my forehead!