“Fake News” or Reputable Science? How to Tell the Difference

Jan Carney, M.D., MPH
Jan Carney, M.D., MPH, associate dean for public health

By now, we have all heard of “fake news,” but what about “fake science news” – does it exist and how can we differentiate between fact and fiction? In January 2017, The Los Angeles Times wrote about epidemic spread of “fake news” to science and medicine. In February, Academic Medicine sounded a warning to academics everywhere about predatory publishing, an exploding and distracting publication practice characterized by “weak peer review, sloppy science, or even fraud.” Celebrity endorsements, personal stories, commercial promotion, or selective coverage of scientific statistics may all contribute to the maze of misinformation so readily available. So, how can we tell what is really science?

With daily access to so much information on social media and online sites, it’s challenging to determine the quality of information we’re reading or seeing or hearing, and avoid misinformation at a pace that keeps up with the speed of new discovery and publication.

At the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont, our solution is to teach the general public, as well as our medical students, how to evaluate the quality of scientific and medical information. In Vermont, the Legislature often asks our faculty for expert health testimony in their consideration of bills, and have asked for our suggestions about how to evaluate the validity and strength of scientific evidence presented to their committees. As a physician and public health expert, I teamed up with medical librarian Donna O’Malley, M.L.S., to develop a few simple strategies, summarized in a “tip sheet.”

We included key topics and reputable web sites to assist community members with finding the actual scientific study (primary source), which is critical. Given the issue of predatory publishing, determining a journal’s reputation is critical and we find SJR – a portal that provides journal analysis – helpful. But what are signs that suggest a disreputable journal? If the journal URL doesn’t work, words are misspelled, or you can’t find names of the editorial board, you should be concerned. When searching for health or medical information online, look for a “reputable” source, use of references, author credentials, clear and current information, and details on who funds the site. To learn more, we suggest pages from the National Institutes of Health and U.S. National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus: Evaluating Health Information and Research Results in the News. Another site, Health News Review, has a credentialed editorial team, reviews news stories and scores them based on a list of important criteria.

Whether interested in results of a new scientific study, making health decisions, or translating science into policy, using high quality information is paramount. A little practice, using a “critical eye,” and asking a few questions will ensure your best chance of finding and using reputable science.

Resources
Structure of a Scientific Paper
US National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus: MedlinePlus Guide to Healthy Web Surfing
MedlinePlus: Evaluating Health Information
MedlinePlus: Understanding Medical Research 
NIH MedlinePlus: Research Results in the News: A Users Guide
Scimago Journal & Country Rank
Health News Review.org

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