Stand up for Science: How to Detect and Fight Misinformation
The internet, social media, and open-access publishing had shattered the walls of the science ivory tower. Now anybody can enter the tower and rifle through the books of an endless library.
On the plus side, this has allowed science communication to a broader audience. On the minus, the web is full of misinformation that spreads like wildfire and leaves similar consequences.
As a Bitesize Bio reader, you are a part of the expert audience. You may not want to spend much of your time contradicting the misinformation out there, but the least you can do is stop it from spreading by not sharing it without checking its validity first.
What is Misinformation in Science?
Before you can fight misinformation in science, you need to understand what it is. Misinformation comes under different guises. We’ll discuss the various forms below.
What the news is reporting is NOT necessarily what the science is communicating. Sensational headlines sell newspapers and drive up subscriptions!
For example, the notoriously sensationalist British newspaper the Daily Mail had an article headlined, “There are THREE distinct strains of the novel coronavirus in the world, and while China’s epidemic was driven by an early mutation that quickly spread in the UK, the US is suffering from an original variation.”
The article is based on a PNAS paper,  where the authors assigned the “ancestral” genotype name A. Genotype B differs from A by two mutations: the synonymous mutation T8782C, and the nonsynonymous mutation C28144T changing a leucine to a serine. Type C differs from its parent type B by the nonsynonymous mutation G26144T, which changes a glycine to a valine.
The virologists would understand immediately:
- This is only one of the virus classifications possible;
- These mutations are insufficient to create distinct types of pathogenicity.
And that’s what the general public cares about! Because they may read that we need not just one but three vaccines.
Poorly Conducted or Disproven Research
With poorly conducted research, the article’s conclusion says one thing, but if you look carefully at the methods and results, this conclusion is not adequately supported. Perhaps they were overstretched, the sample size was too small, or the statistics were poorly conducted.
Andrew Wakefield’s paper in The Lancet about the alleged link between MMR vaccine and autism that launched the thousands of anti-vaxxers conspiracy theories is one such example. The paper sampled only 12 people.  The data were not reproducible on large cohorts, and the article has since been retracted. The author has lost his medical license but is still quoted by the anti-vaxxers as a medical doctor.
If papers like this can be published in a peer-reviewed, reputable journal like The Lancet, you should be even more cautious about articles published in predatory journals, which will publish anything for a fee.
This type of misinformation is talking about allegedly peer-reviewed papers that, on further inspection, aren’t actually peer-reviewed (or there is no paper at all). The rise in journal subscription fees has given rise to preprint servers where anybody can publish a manuscript. There is no peer review, and anybody can view the papers with unintended consequences. For example, one preprint jumps from some computer modeling to direct—and unsubstantiated advice—that ginger can cure COVID-19.  This resulted in ginger selling out in supermarkets. 
4 Simple Steps to Identifying Misinformation
Now that you understand the types of misinformation, you can look out for them in the news and on social media. Below are four simple steps to identifying misinformation.
1. What is the Source?
The first step is to identify the source. Social media posts often don’t have sources, just rumors. Ask for evidence in peer-reviewed scientific journals and official documents from reputable organizations such as the Centres for Disease Control And Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). [5,6]
Mass media often presents their source in very vague terms, such as “a paper in PNAS”. However, a Google search with keywords will usually identify the original paper.
Then you need to ask…
2. Is the claim published in a Peer-Reviewed Journal? Can You Access the Article?
If it is published in a peer-reviewed journal you’ve never heard about, a quick look at its impact factor will tell you something about the claims.
However, the impact factor is not always a good indication of reliability. Journal impact factors are calculated by averaging yearly citations of articles published in a journal over the last two years. So the publication in question could reflect if the work is novel or newsworthy. After all, Andrew Wakefield’s (now retracted) paper was published in The Lancet,  which has a very high impact factor of 202.7 (in 2021).
Granted, poor-quality journals usually have low impact factors. But a low impact factor doesn’t necessarily mean a journal is not reputable. University College London has a handy guide for determining if a journal is credible.
3. Author Reputation and Conflicting Commercial Interests
These days, articles and media promotions are often associated with promoting a company or a product. “Independent researchers”, who are not affiliated with a research institution such as a University, usually have no oversight and often no credible reputation.
Assessing a bona fide researcher’s reputation and scientific impact is not straightforward, and multiple approaches are recommended.
You could start by checking the author’s University webpage or profile, for example, which usually lists the number of articles published. However, a long list of publications does not indicate their reputation or impact on the field and is merely a measure of a scientist’s output.
You can glean a great deal more information from institutional profile pages, such as tenure, awards and honors, scientific collaborations, funding, and even mentorship. Taken together, these may allow you to evaluate a scientist’s standing within the research community. Their social media profiles and feeds are another avenue worth exploring.
The number of citations a scientist and their publication receives is widely used to measure their impact. A researcher’s h-index has been widely adopted as a correlate of their scientific reputation but is only a rough indicator. There are several online resources for obtaining a scientist’s h-index, including ISI Web of Knowledge, Scopus, and Google Scholar.
You should also pay attention to the information provided in the “Conflicts of Interest” or “Competing Interests” section of scientific publications. Here, authors are obliged to disclose any direct or indirect financial interest, or personal interests, that could be perceived to jeopardize a researcher’s impartiality and judgment.
4. Do the Fact-Checking
Science-related misinformation can harm individuals and society, so fact-checking is crucial. But what is fact-checking?
At Bitesize Bio, we have an in-house editorial quality control process in which we double-check information before publication. But there is more to fact-checking than simply verifying factual information.
To determine how well-supported scientific claims are, we must evaluate their science. To ensure that you fully understand the findings of a scientific paper, you need to read it methodically and critically. This involves assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the methods and determining if the conclusions are properly supported by the data.
Check out our article on how to read a scientific paper. This article provides handy checklists of key points on what to look for in each section of a paper.
For more information, read the guide to fact-checking from the British Charity Sense about Science. There are also fact-checking sites, for example, AFP, that fact-check common stories in circulation.
What to Do When You See Misinformation Being Spread
If you spot misinformation and feel you want to or should address the issue, there are some steps you can take to ensure you do it in the best possible way.
- Highlight the error to the person reporting it (after doing the above research).
- Be polite. Remember that you have had training on how to spot misinformation and to look for supporting data; many non-scientists have not.
- Keep emotion out of it. Point to a lack of source or the unreliable nature of the source, or how the source does not support the statement.
- Highlight reliable sources stating otherwise or clarify what the source is saying.
Make Sure You Don’t Spread Misinformation Yourself
If you don’t feel you want to or can tackle misinformation head-on, the least you can do is ensure you don’t spread it yourself.
- People inherently trust your judgment more if you have a Ph.D. or other academic credentials—this is a responsibility! If you aren’t reasonably sure what you are sharing is reliable, you shouldn’t be sharing it.
- Are you aware of confirmation bias? This is our tendency to be more trusting of information and sources that share our beliefs or political views—not the most reliable data. Be aware of this when sharing information, and fact-check everything, even if you believe it to be true.
- Check sources thoroughly first. Even if it is shared by someone you trust, don’t inherently trust the information or that they have done due diligence. Again, always fact-check anything you share.
- Think about why you are sharing this information. Is it useful to the general public? Will it help people? Does sharing this information support a hidden agenda (other people’s or your personal agenda)?
How to Fight Misinformation in Science Summarized
Following the steps above will help you not only in your public life but in your scientific career as well. By mastering the skill of fact-checking by fighting misinformation in science, you will become a better scientist. If you know anyone who needs a gentle reminder or introduction on how to fact-check, make sure you share this article. Have any other fact-checking tips? Please leave a comment below.
While you’re here, check out The Microscopists interview with Elisabeth Bik (Science Integrity Digest), who combs the biomedical literature for inappropriately manipulated photographic images and plagiarized text.
Originally published May 2020. Reviewed and updated September 2022.
- Forster P, et al. (2020) Phylogenetic network analysis of SARS-CoV-2 genomes. PNAS. 117(17):9241–3.
- Wakefield A, et al. (1998). Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children”. The Lancet. 351 (9103): 637–41.
- Utomo RY, et al. Revealing the Potency of Citrus and Galangal Constituents to Halt SARS-CoV-2 Infection. Preprints 2020.
- Why coronavirus is driving up ginger and garlic prices. Financial Times. Accessed 24 August 2022.
- Centers for Disease Control And Prevention. Accessed 24 August 2022.
- World Health Organization. Accessed 24 August 2022.
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