Understanding the Embargo Period and dealing with it as an Author and a Reader
An embargo in the context of academic publishing typically means a temporary stop or ban on disclosing information contained in a research paper. The embargo may affect authors or, after the publication of the research paper in question, may affect readers by preventing them from accessing it.
History of the embargo period
Before the Internet gave us widespread and instant access to information, embargo referred to a condition imposed on the mass media (newspapers, magazines, radio and TV channels, etc.) to stop them, for a specified (but usually short) period, from publishing some information given to them that was simultaneously under consideration for publication in a (usually peer-reviewed) academic journal.
The purpose of this injunction was in fact to facilitate speedy publication and dissemination of information once it was officially published in a journal that had accepted the paper for publication. After all, it was the journal that had worked on the initial submission in manuscript form by having it reviewed, revised as required, refined, and edited for style and language. The journal thus had every right to publish it first, before it was shared with the general public via mass media.
Evolution of the embargo period
Two developments changed the meaning of the term embargo, namely the Internet and the rise of open access (OA) publishing. The Internet made it possible for authors to disseminate their findings quickly, widely and cheaply, especially among their peers, usurping some of the functions of the journal. Authors began posting their articles as preprints, a practice that flourishes today. The journals responded, initially by declining to consider manuscripts if the contents had already been ‘published’ elsewhere in some form, and then by imposing some restrictions (embargoes) on subsequent publication through alternative channels.
Embargo period currently
At present, the most widely shared meaning of embargo is intentionally delayed access to papers published in journals to favour subscribers (who have paid to access the contents and enjoy instant access immediately upon publication) over non-subscribers who may be offered access to the same publication after a fixed period, usually ranging from three months to two years, depending on the journal.
How to deal with embargo periods as an author
As an author, you may chafe at not being allowed to publicise your research as soon as it is published. However, in most cases, the embargo applies to the contents of your research paper, not to its facts of publication.
We recommend: Read the small print carefully to see what is allowed.
Below are some options open to you as an author to promote your publications while they are embargoed.
Note: In each case, remember to send only the bibliographic details and the date the embargo ends — do not send the paper itself.
- Email cited researchers. Mail some of the researchers whom you have cited often in your paper. Not only will they be pleased to know that they have been cited, but they will also spread the word among their networks.
- Announce on social media. On social media platforms such as Twitter and LinkedIn, post that your research paper is going to be published soon and offer to send copies as soon as it is possible to do so. (To learn about other ways to share your research on social media, read: How to effectively Share your research on Social Media)
- Inform your institution’s communications professionals. Talk to the office or person responsible for publicity and public relations in the institution in which you work and alert them about your forthcoming paper. If your paper is potentially of general interest, these professionals will help you to contact the media and prepare a press release, to be sent out as soon as the embargo period ends. (To learn about other ways to work with the media to communicate your research, read: Working with the Media to Disseminate your research)
How to deal with embargo periods as a reader
Typically, you will have read the abstract and, because the article looked promising, will be keen to read the full paper – only to find that it is embargoed. Here are some options open to you.
- Look for a paid library subscription. Since embargoes do not affect paid subscribers, see if any library that serves you has taken out a subscription to the journal in question and request them for a copy. If the library has not subscribed, explore the option of interlibrary loans.
- Try the Unpaywall browser extension. The access that the Unpaywall extension provides to browsers provides is fast, quick and legal.
- Email the corresponding author. Request the corresponding author of the paper for a copy for personal use.
- Wait. If all else fails, wait patiently for the embargo period to end!
There are two sides to the embargo coin. As a reader, you may be frustrated by embargoes. However, as an author, you may be a little more sympathetic to embargoes, now that you understand why publishers use them.
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