A Guide To Consuming Science Information Online – Be Careful

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I am sitting on a train between Boston and Washington, D.C. I just left the American Meteorological Society’s (AMS) Annual Meeting. It was a week of stimulating science engagement and learning. As fires continue to burn in Australia, NASA and NOAA issued a press release from the AMS meeting announcing that 2019 was the 2nd warmest year on record. There will be all types of perspectives flying around the “blogosphere” and social media about this announcement so it is the perfect time to write about something that has been on my mind. Science information is very accessible to the public these days. I often see people citing facts from websites, blogs, editorials, journal articles, and so forth. The challenging aspect of such access is that people may not understand that information or quality control varies. Here is a quick and unofficial guide to science information that you may consume online.

Peer-reviewed Literature. This is the “FDA approval” of science. Papers submitted to peer-reviewed journals, in theory, achieve the most rigorous evaluation of methodology, results, and interpretations. Angelo State University’s website has a nice description below:

Peer-reviewed (refereed or scholarly) journals – Articles are written by experts and are reviewed by several other experts in the field before the article is published in the journal in order to ensure the article’s quality. (The article is more likely to be scientifically valid, reach reasonable conclusions, etc.) In most cases the reviewers do not know who the author of the article is, so that the article succeeds or fails on its own merit, not the reputation of the expert.

Angelo State University website

This process is supposed to prevent random, untested, or flawed scientific results from being published. It also provides a credible format for dissenting perspectives and re-evaluation of published science. As scientist, it is amusing to watch various contrarian camps sow seeds of doubt about the quality and reliability of peer-reviewed journals. Ironically, when an isolated paper is published in a peer-reviewed journal that supports their perspective, they are often quick to cite it (go figure). Is the peer-review process perfect? Absolutely not. However, scholars continue to point out that even with its flaws, it is generally a good barrier against bad science.

Blogs. This is a blog that you are reading right now. I try to write credible and peer-review literature-based science in this space. However, it is still a blog. Forbes and other outlets have a range of contributors with differing viewpoints, expertise, and opinions. I caution you not to take my blog or another writer’s perspectives in these formats as conclusive truth. I often find that the “Grand Poobah” or “cult of personality” effect is real. Because people like the perspective, ideology or writings of a person, they assume their opinions, blogs or Tweets take precedence over the peer-review literature or consensus science. Blogs can have factual information and stimulate further inquiry or discussion. They can also be very useful for deciphering the technical jargon of a peer-reviewed article. However, they should not replace the peer-review process as first-order sources.

Grey Literature. Grey literature, according to Duke University, is “manifold document types produced on all levels of government, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats that are protected by intellectual property rights, of sufficient quality to be collected and preserved by libraries and institutional repositories, but not controlled by commercial publishers; i.e. where publishing is not the primary activity of the producing body.” These types of reports are often not rigorously peer-reviewed and may convey information that has a certain intent. Examples of grey literature include reports, conference proceedings, unpublished data reports, certain government or corporate publications, and even dissertations/theses. While they can provide very credible or timely information, it is important to understand the motivation and context for grey literature.

Opinion pieces. These publications are a “dime a dozen.” Op-Eds and commentaries are designed to be persuasive or to convey a certain point of view. They may contain factual elements but must be consumed with the proper context. After all, they inherently are rooted in “opinion.” Someone’s opinion is not your facts.

Tweet Storms and Wikipedia. The last item represents the reality of the social media age. The Internet has “democratized” access to scientific information, but many people don’t properly interpret the information. It is often amusing to watch a social media debate in which one party is citing the peer-review literature, and the other party is citing Wikipedia. Don’t get me wrong, I often use Wikipedia and other “info” sites for quick look information. However, I always “go deeper” with more vetted sources. Tweet Storms are also a “sign of the times.” They are often quite credible and have useful information. However, it is important to remember that unless they are anchored in peer-reviewed sources, they opinions or “digital grey literature.”

I read all of the types of writings discussed herein. My intent herein was not to be dismissive of any of them. Instead, the goal was to challenge you to think about how you consume science information online and what you choose to share. Others may not have the same filter that you do when you share a “professional-looking” document that has not been evaluated or peer-reviewed.

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