What are the facts? Determining the validity of published scientific information

You might think that false information can only be found in popular media, but this isn’t true. Unfortunately, even in the bulk of science articles published every year, misrepresented facts can be found. Luckily, separating fact from fiction isn’t difficult when you know what to look for.

According to research by the University of Ottawa, the total number of science papers published (the first in 1665) surpassed 50 million in 2009. In fact, the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers estimated that circa 2.5 million new scientific papers are published each year.

Based on these numbers, it can be calculated that over 70 million articles have been published to date. And, within these publications, the validity of the content can vary greatly.

Here are a few things to ask yourself when reading a scientific article:

How was the study set up?

To determine whether a study and its conclusions are valid, the author(s) of an article must prove that the hypothesis has been empirically tested, following a rigorous scientific approach.

Depending on multiple factors— e.g., patient sample size, inclusion criteria and follow-up intervals—planning and completing a study could take a few months for a small study to several years for a long-term clinical study. Regardless of length, details should be continuously recorded.

Not only should the article contain a careful explanation of how the study was set up, it should also explain what evidence was discovered and how the conclusions were drawn from this evidence.

Has the study been peer-reviewed?

One of the best filters for fact-based evidence and conclusions is a review process. Articles appearing in peer-reviewed academic journals have undergone thorough review before being accepted for publication.

The reviewers analyze a submitted manuscript and ensure the evidence supports the conclusions. Often, they ask authors to defend their arguments or perform additional experiments to support their conclusions, which could add months and also additional costs to the review process. Even once approved, it could be two years before an article is published.

Who’s behind the curtain?

It is of course possible to bypass the rigorous review process and publish articles in, for example, a blog or in less reputable publications. You probably see these kinds of science findings shared online every day. They often include quick and easy conclusions with little supporting evidence. Consequently, the scientific validity of these articles is questionable.

In summary, in order to separate facts from opinion, make sure to know how the study was set up, who reviewed the study and who is behind the study. Then you can rest assured that you are reading real, not alternative, facts.