Scientific studies are often overlooked in the fact-checking process, even though studies have been made on most issues discussed in the public space. Almost every topic, from science, health, environment and technology, to human behaviour and social phenomena have been researched extensive over the past decades. But these data, although easily accessible, are rarely used in the media to strengthen arguments or verify content. And when they are used, this is frequently done in a superficial or misleading way, often to ill effect. Whenever you see a vague nod to science, such as “according to scientists” or “the science says so,” you should be automatically suspicious if this is not credited to particular science research that you can find and where you can read the original source yourself.
There are many other situations where you can use scientific studies as a fact-checking tool. Perhaps you have doubts about how the government collects data on pollution—you can check if there is independent research which includes the types of measures you are looking for, and in the particular area you are observing. Or if you want to check health recommendations, you can see if they are backed by enough scientific evidence.
But there are things that you should carefully consider when you use scientific research as a tool for fact-checking.
- Peer-review: You should always make sure that the studies you use are published in peer-reviewed science journals, which means that the findings and methodology used in the research are “fact-checked” by experts in this particular field. If an article is not peer-reviewed, you should not consider the claims it makes as “scientifically proven.” It is best if the journal itself is part of an officially recognised database like Web of Science Core Collection, Scopus or Medline—that way, you can be sure that it has gone through the proper peer-reviewing process. Usually, the bigger impact factor that a science journal has, the more important the findings published in it. You can also gauge the impact of the particular study by the number of citations it has in other science articles. In extraordinary situations, like the COVID-19 pandemic, studies may be published as “preprints”, which means they are published on open-source platforms which don’t carry out a peer-review process. This unusual practice is only done because some new findings can be of vital knowledge for scientists in times of crisis, and because the peer-review process can take many months. If you present results from “preprints,” you should always acknowledge so, and make clear that the findings could be disproved later. Note that even when peer-reviewed, results from published research are not set in stone. They can be challenged by another study. This is another reason why journalists should be careful to credit the results to particular authors and their study.
- Understanding: It is easy for amateurs to misinterpret findings from scientific research. It is best if the authors of the study can explain the findings in simple terms or if you can consult another expert from the field to comment on the findings.
- Get access to the full study: For journalists who are not specialized in science, it can be somewhat complicated to get access to full scientific articles. But with specialized search engines like Google Scholar or the ones from publishers themselves, you can easily see the abstract of a particular study. If the study is not published as an open source, you will still see the email addresses of the authors of the study. Authors are usually willing to share the full research with you if you explain who you are and what you plan to use the study for.
- Research the researchers: There are more ways to establish the importance of a particular expert within a specific field of science, but some of the most popular ways are checking the number of publications and h-index of productivity and citations that they have, as well as checking what position they hold in an accredited science institution.
“Being an environmental journalist, my favourite fact-checking tools are archives of scientific studies like Sciencedirect.com. When I find a study, I make sure that facts and figures sit on sound data and science. I also contact authors and scientists or experts within governmental organization, with the same objective…”