HT04: Does the media article link to the where the work is published and the original research team?
Welcome to part four of our How to “Research the Headlines” guide. By now, you should be familiar with some of our tips on how to address media reporting of research: make sure you read the whole article, not just potentially misleading headlines, and look out for quotes from and guidance from not only the authors of the research, but also some independent experts. Our next piece of advice regards the provenance of the research — does the news item provide links to the original study and those who carried it out?
Part 4: Does the media article link to the where the work is published and the original research team?
When reporting on research in the media, it is good practice to tell the reader (i) where the study was published, and (ii) who carried it out, preferably with direct links to both pieces of information. As this immediately gives a good impression of the reliability of the reporting and headlines, it is a key component of our blog — you’ll find citation boxes at the end of each of our posts. Sadly, links to the source of the data are still often lacking in media articles.
It is important that the research has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, as this means it will have received some level of evaluation from other experts in the area and so should be more reliable. In some cases, news stories originate from a press release or conference lecture, which means the research has not been assessed by experts in the field before being put forward. Peer review is far from foolproof, as demonstrated by the recent furore over generating stem cells that has led to the imminent retraction of the work from Nature, one of the most respected journals in all of science. It is, however, a good indicator of robustness, and publication allows readers to investigate the data themselves, although many leading journals require a subscription or payment to access papers.
There is a movement in place to make scientific papers more accessible to the public, through so-called open access journals, which are free to view. The rapid increase in the number of open access journals has been accompanied by concern over the veracity of the publication and peer review processes of many of these for-profit publishing houses. Spoof articles have made it into print, as well as computer-generated nonsense, as the ever increasing numbers of profit-motivated journals publish quantity over quality, paying little heed to the peer-review process and often entrapping struggling scientists into paying to have their work published. Despite this, highly respected open access journals, such as PLOS ONE, have been a resounding success, whilst articles in existing subscription-only journals are increasingly being made open access to meet funders’ regulations. The bloggers at Research the Headlines recommend searching for information on the journal itself, which should be freely available on the internet, before drawing their own conclusions.
It is also important to know where the research is coming from. Again, a quick internet search will enlighten you as to whether the research comes from a reputable researcher working at a university or research centre, or if the lead scientist is known to court controversy in their findings. Academic snobbery should be avoided — scientists will tell you that University rankings and league tables are a poor measurement of an individual researcher’s prowess — but any potential problems will be flagged fairly rapidly after an online search. It is also useful to find out if the authors are publishing work in their own area of expertise. It is a well-used tactic of climate change deniers to roll out a prestigious Professor with little expertise in climate science to refute the latest scientific data, using an academic title to attempt to legitimise ill-informed claims.
So the take-home message is simple: do your own research into where the science behind the story comes from, who has carried it out and where it is published. One of our own bloggers at Research the Headlines has written previously about her own personal experience of the media reporting inaccurate articles with no scientific basis. The good news is that media are generally getting better at including links to published papers, and a continued transparency is welcome.