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Evaluating Scientific Information (if you're not an expert): Accuracy

tips for critically evaluating scientific research articles and news reports about research

Are the facts in the website accurate?

Compare this article with this other article, and ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the author of each one reference (or link to) other sources to back up their assertions?
  • If so, how many of those references or links are to pieces by the same author, or in the same publication? (Hint: the more references to other authors and other publications, the more likely it is to be accurate.)
  • If you wanted to verify the information in each article, does it give you clues for what to search for?
  • Does either article claim something that seems unlikely, based on facts that  you already know about the topic? Does one article contradict the other (or itself)?

The facts can be accurate, but the presentation can be off.

It is possible to write scientific articles that contain only accurate, true, and factual information -- and still give the reader a wrong impression. Take a look at this article, and after reading it, decide whether the substance it is writing about is truly a grave danger to the environment. 

Peer Review Checks Accuracy for You

When it comes to scholarly, scientific, or technical information, you might not have the background to be able to judge accuracy just by your own knowledge of the topic. That's where peer review becomes important.

Peer review is the practice of having a panel of experts, perhaps fellow researchers in the same field, evaluate articles before they are published. Authors often ask friends and colleagues to read over and comment informally as they write; but peer review is different. Peer review is done for the journal's editors, and reviewers are (ideally) not people who already know the author. The peer reviewers check whether any scientific experiments were conducted using proper scientific methods, whether any statistical analysis was accurate, and if conclusions are valid. Also ideally, reviews are objective and not based on personal opinion.

While it's possible to "game" the peer review system, in general if an article was peer reviewed, you can trust that it is accurate.

Be warned: not all academic or scholarly journals are peer reviewed. If it was, often the article will list "peer reviewed" on the first or last page.