Do your research! Six ways to find science you can trust online

by Gaia Cantelli, PhD

Credit: Tim Abbott, used via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 License
If you wanted to know more about a medical condition would you take a trip to the library and pore over medical textbooks? Of course not, you’d look it up on your phone while you’re still in your doctor’s waiting room.

Looking up things online is essentially second nature for most of us – but do you ever worry if you can trust what you find? Most of us get all our information from the Internet – and science and medicine have been made far more accessible by the Internet and mobile phones. It’s incredibly convenient, but it is also a minefield of potential misinformation, misunderstanding and, even worse, fraud. How can we know if we can trust what we see online? Here are some of my best pointers to use this amazing resource to obtain reliable and relevant information – especially when it comes to science and medicine.

1. When you hear hooves, think horses, not zebras
This is one of the first pieces of advice medical students receive. What it means is to always think of the most likely possibility first, before branching into more outlandish theories, something referred to as Ockham’s razor. If you are researching something online and you run into people who claim to have discovered an amazing new cure, but that their voice is being silenced by the medical establishment stop to think about it for a second. What is most likely in your own experience? When most people in your world agree on something, are they involved in a big cover-up?

Definitely don't think of okapis, that would be ridiculous, unless you're near an okapi enclosure. Image copyright whyohwhyohwhyoh, used via Flickr CC BY 2.0 Creative Commons License
When someone claims that they have developed a cure for a complex disease only using ingredient from your kitchen cabinet, think about whether that makes sense in the real world. Wouldn’t people have stumbled upon whatever garlic-to-bicarb ratio they are suggesting in the last few hundred years? If something sounds too good to be true, it almost definitely is. Keep your sceptical cap on!

2. Look for traces of primary scientific literature
While reading through the less well-reputable parts of the Internet, you will come across countless people who claim to have “done their research”. Some of them might, in fact, be scientists who are literally doing research on the subject. Others will inevitably be people who have “researched” the topic online, reading through unreliable sources and coming to all sorts of unfounded conclusions. A great way to tell these two groups apart is to look for the footprints of “primary scientific literature”.

Look to see if a site says where research was published

When scientists make a new discovery, they share it with the rest of the scientific community through articles in specialised publications. These are usually highly technical pieces of literature that are intended for other scientists. Most importantly, these articles have undergone a process known as “peer-review”, where other scientists review the article to try to make sure it stands up to rigorous scientific testing. Reliable sources online will always provide a link or at least a reference to primary scientific literature. On the other hand, you should be wary of people who reference “a study” without providing its original source.

3. Follow the money
As a general rule, be wary of anything that comes from someone who is trying to sell you something. On one hand, the information they are providing could be genuine – in which case it will most definitely be available from other sources. Alternatively, you are reading the website of a business who is trying to attract consumers. Therefore, they may only present you with information that is aimed at making you think you need whatever product or service they are selling. If you are interested in their business, of course, feel free to read through their website. However, bear in mind that the information you are reading most certainly comes with an agenda.

FYI, this is more than ScienceSeeker's current budget. Image copyright George Redgrave, used via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0 Creative Commons License
4. Pick an authoritative source
One excellent way to quickly make sure the information you find is reliable is to look for it in reliable places. Usually, this means going to generally trustworthy sources – well known websites that are known to be written for and edited by experts in the field.
  • For scientific information, the websites of big scientific journals usually host editorial articles for the general public as well as scientific publications. Nature and Science are excellent sources on information on recent discoveries and a fantastic place to search for answers to important questions. 
  • For medical queries, WebMD is almost always a great resource for detailed information. If you are looking for more scientific facts on a specific condition, a great idea is to find a charity that raises funds for that specific condition and check out their website. Charity websites are almost always thoroughly verified and are often written by real scientists in a very fluent, easy-to-understand style. For instance, if you are looking for information on cancer you can find reliable information on websites such as the American Cancer Society or Cancer Research UK
  • Wikipedia is an excellent general source, relied on by many, including the ScienceSeeker editors, but sometimes has problems. It’s therefore wise to check the information you find there is correct and relevant – which brings us to our fifth point.
5. Read around the subject
One of the major problems about educating yourself on the Internet is that it requires absolutely no prior knowledge. This means that even the most reliable information can easily be misunderstood or misinterpreted. To avoid this trap, when something is important to know, you ideally need to take as much time as you can spare to research the subject instead of looking straight for the answer to your questions.

A great way to get started is to make sure you are fully familiar with every word you read during your search. There are almost definitely going to be technical terms and jargon you are not familiar with. Instead of skipping over or simply look up the dictionary definition,  make sure you take your time and if you can really acquaint yourself with the concepts behind those words. Another good idea is to make it a point to follow every relevant link that is provided in the page you are reading – this will help you gain perspective and understand the context relevant to the information you are reading about.

6. Ask an expert
While the Internet is a wonderful thing, you should avoid relying on it as your only source for important scientific information. The outside world is still there! Find an authoritative source on whatever you are researching and go ask questions. If you are looking up medical information, you should always go to your doctor. If you are interested in the basic science behind disease or any other aspect of science, local museums often host events throughout the year where you can meet real-life scientists and ask questions.

Lastly, there are plenty of places online where you can ask questions to real doctors and scientists. The key to contacting the experts is to keep your mind open to what they might tell you. You might have to accept that your previous online research was incorrect or inaccurate or simply did not really apply to you. If there are discrepancies between what you thought and what the expert is explaining to you, ask them about it. Don’t be afraid to look misinformed – making sure you understand whatever interests you is part of their job!

Gaia Cantelli is a postdoctoral associate at Duke University, studying the mechanisms that regulate cancer cell metastasis to the bone and she regularly blogs over at scienceblog.com

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