How to Identify Reliable Information on the Web

Science fans, if you find yourself wondering about the validity of what you are reading on the web more often than not, you are not alone! Internet is such an amazing source of knowledge, but with such plethora of information, how do we know whom and what to believe?

Earlier today, a friend of mine sent me information about an article he found online, which sounding pretty interesting and quite groundbreaking. However, after reading the original scientific paper mentioned, I had to admit that, in my opinion, there was not much in the article warranting the conclusions of the online post. Granted, it is easy to over interpret any set of data, and we are all biased one way or another, but there was clearly a little bit more than partiality going on there. The absence of an increase simply does not equal a decrease! I was disappointed and displeased (however, other articles in this blog seemed perfectly valid).

So how can you tell if the information you find on the web is reliable or not, without spending hours reading scientific articles off Pubmed (although, I will do that for you)? Are there any short-cuts?

Yes, yes there are.

Here are a few tips:

1. If the online article claims groundbreaking findings without mentioning the original scientific study associated with it – Redflag. You can use a couple keywords from the article (e.g. increased cholesterol, diet colas, if you have found a study linking the consumption of diet colas to higher cholesterol) and input them in Google Scholar or Scirus for a quick search on the topic. If the news is supposed to be new, restrict the result to this year or a couple years back. If you find the article, go to step 2.

2. If the online article mentions the original scientific paper, from which the data emanates: check the title, the year of publication, the journal and the authors. Everything is indicative.

Is the title of the article matching the title of the online report? It is not an absolute rule that those two need matching, but anything completely different might indicate a liberal interpretation from the online blogger (and if the authors have found something really groundbreaking, they will want to put it in the title).

Is the study recent? If the paper is more than 5 or 10 years old, there are most probably more recent studies covering the same subject, which might have confirmed or contradicted the cited results.

The journal itself is a good indicator, and good studies often get published in subject appropriate journals, e.g. a cancer study in a journal specializing in cancer. However, this is not an absolute rule.

If you have access to the authors’ affiliation, check and make sure there is no obvious conflict of interest, e.g. a study describing the effects of a new drug written by someone affiliated to the pharmaceutical company producing the drug. This verification might be easier performed in step 3.

3. If you want to go a little deeper, check Pubmed for the abstract of the article. Input keywords or the title for a quick search. Some articles are freely available online, others will only display an abstract, but the abstract by itself tells often a lot, since it is written to summarize the main results of the article. If the abstract matches the description found in the online article, then you can probably trust the whole post.

4. If you don’t have the time to do any of the above, find a source of information you have learned to trust, based on a few articles you have been able to reference-check in the past. We use this strategy commonly with people in real life: when we need advice on a topic and don’t have the time to do the whole research ourselves, we ask a trusted friend. Beware though that a lot of online blogs and pages are written by several authors.

These tips have definitely helped me a lot, I hope they can help you too. Do you have any other tip you use to identify reliable sources of information on the web? Happy websurfing!

Copyright (see copyright page): © “Food, Science and Health” (FoodScienceHealth.com) by Barbara Cerf-Allen, 2013 All Rights Reserved

Disclaimer: I am not advocating any of the above mentioned diets, nor am I making any claim about their usefulness for your specific condition. I am not a medical doctor and I am not giving medical advice. This blog is about sharing scientific information and my personal anecdotal experience,

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2 thoughts on “How to Identify Reliable Information on the Web

  1. I am delighted to have found your blog! As someone trained in library science, I am always on the lookout for source information and wish I had the time to do more in-depth research on the topics which interest me. High on my list is our food system. I have been an organic gardener for over 30 years and have always tried to eat well. Lately I have become alarmed by the amount of toxins that have entered our food supply and that of our pollinators and fellow creatures. I’ve walked the cancer and celiac path with family and friends and now my beloved cat has developed a bizarre dermatological issue that I am trying to treat with raw food, Chinese medicine and homeopathy. I’ve also enrolled as a student at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. There is hope and a large community of seekers out there sharing information.

    • Thank you for reading my blog! There is obviously no need to convince you of the power of nutrition over health, but I would be happy to help provide scientific bases for your food choices. I am interested to hear about the raw food approach (I intend to write about it too), please let me know if it helps!

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