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A science free-for-all?

For now, Science runs on a strict time schedule, and so does Nature. Those who cover science as reported in the world's premier peer-reviewed journals know that Nature generally keeps its research under embargo until 1 p.m. ET Wednesday, and that Science releases its studies at 2 p.m. ET Thursday. Many other journals follow similar timetables, scheduling discoveries like so many arriving trains.

But the times they are a-changin' - and this week, the editor-in-chief of the journal Science all but admitted that the weekly embargo is facing extinction.

Science's Donald Kennedy told an assembly of about two dozen journalists and academics that in the future, peer-reviewed research would most likely come out in "driblets" rather than in the neat weekly packages that we're accustomed to.

Journalists (including yours truly) receive access to these packages of finished research in advance, in return for pledging to refrain from publishing the news until the specified embargo lifts. The idea is that the advance notice gives us time to digest complicated concepts behind the studies - and set up interviews with the researchers as well as critics and commentators before publication.

Of course, competitive maneuvering often goes on behind the scenes: The clearest example relates to the media buzz in 1996 over the discovery of "nanofossils" in a meteorite from Mars - a case study that spawned a fascinating research paper (PDF file) on the science news game.

Back then, the Internet was just hitting the big time as a news medium. Today, online information dissemination has transformed the way news - and science - gets out to the public.

At this week's seminar in Los Angeles, sponsored by the Knight New Media Center and titled "Best Practices: Covering Science in Cyberspace," Kennedy noted the increasing popularity of "publish-before-print" arrangements - in which research papers are distributed online well before they appear in print. Today's report about huge reservoirs of water ice on Mars is a prime example of the practice.

Kennedy told us that his publication - as well as Nature, Science's chief rival - appeared to be "emerging on a pathway of evolution that will make ultimately the online version of our publication the archival version, and will leave the print version free to do a somewhat different kind of experimentation."

"Now I must confess that I don't know what that is," he added.

However, during a Q&A session, Kennedy suggested that the print version of a Science paper might be written in a shorter, "more user-friendly" style - with the full blow-by-blow account appearing in the online version. The online archive would also provide video, complex graphics and other supplemental materials that just can't be put into the on-paper publication, he said.

Kennedy's main theme was that with the rise of online research distribution and 24/7 news distribution, scientific discoveries aren't likely to fit into an "only-on-Thursdays" package.

"It's going to create a problem for the people who try to manage science news," Kennedy said. "My guess is that the embargo system will either be abandoned, in which case it'll be a free-for-all ... [or] it's certainly likely that embargoes will be shortened, and the distribution of news to mainstream news media - which used to happen in clumps so that embargoes for an entire clump could be organized - is going to happen in driblets. So there will have to be a more confusing embargo environment."

In a world without embargoes, research revelations may be covered less like the pre-programmed release of the latest software, and more like the back-and-forth of political or financial developments. Come to think of it, we're already heading in that direction. The result is likely to heighten a public perception that the scientific process is messy rather than managed, fallible rather than faultless.

Otto von Bismarck is said to have once remarked, "To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making." Does the same go for science?

For more on "Best Practices: Covering Science in Cyberspace," review the postings in the conference Weblog.