The internet has given people across the world access to unprecedented amounts of information. Perhaps more significantly, the internet has provided people with a platform for disseminating information to billions within seconds. A 2016 by the Pew Research Center found that more than 62% of adults in the United States get some of their news from social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. However, just like the game of telephone, sometimes important aspects of a story can be distorted or even changed entirely when transmitted via social networks. How can people decipher if an article is trustworthy or not? As scientists, this is something we do everyday, so we want to share a few of the strategies that we use to analyze articles from journals, the internet, newspapers, and other sources.
| How to Verify Sources
1. Who is the author and what biases might the author have? There are many places to start when examining an article or online post, but one of the easiest and most fruitful starting places is the author. Do they have educational or work experience in the field that they are discussing? Can you verify any of those qualifications? If the author works for an organization, think about how this connection might influence their opinion. What do they gain by swaying you to their side? If the author uses subjective language, try to distinguish the information that they give you from the conclusion that they are trying to lead you to. For example, how much would you trust an article from a tobacco company that highlighted the health benefits of smoking?
2. Location of the article matters. In addition to the organization that supports or sponsors a given article, you should think about where you found it. Was it in a peer reviewed journal? If so, is this a well known journal? A good way to check this is find the the impact factor, and the higher the impact factor, the better. We do want to stress that the impact factor is not a standalone measurement of a journal’s worth, we suggest it here for lay readers due to its simplicity and ease of use. It should be concerning if the journal under investigation does not have an impact factor. If the article is not from a journal, you can look at the domain name of the site where you found the article. Is it a simple .com, or is it .org, .edu, or .gov.? While there are many trustworthy .com websites, websites from the government (.gov), an organization (.org), or an academic institution (.edu) are typically the most trustworthy sources.
3. Is there a proper explanation of statistics? Articles can overwhelm readers by using too many statistics and you should be wary of articles that do not take the time discuss the context of the studies they reference. If you have questions about a statistic or if the statistic is introduced only briefly, you should look up the source that it came from and examine the “trustworthiness” of the source using some of the methods discussed in this article.
4. Facts need to be cited. In science, like in any academic field, providing sources and reference material is critical. Sources provide a larger context for the discussion at hand and offer support for hypotheses or other new ideas. Citations come in a variety of forms, but are often shown in the body of the article as small numbers or names that refer the reader to a more detailed description at the end of the article. Go to an article’s sources and examine them using the criteria described here. Sometimes the source will have even better information for you!
5. A Note on Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a great starting point for research, but that is all it should be. It gives you key words, ideas, and arguments to search for later. You can look up each part that you’re interested in from more reputable sources, following the guidelines expressed previously.
These factors should be used holistically to assess articles, even solid scientific articles can make mistakes and a single mistake should not discount an otherwise good article. If most of the factors demonstrate that a source is credible, the article is probably trustworthy. Real science rarely deals in certainties, and the rest of the world is no different. We encourage you to look for the most credible articles possible when formulating your own opinion.
By James Smith and Aroob Abdelhamid