Doing your own research: How to determine the credibility of a source and find accurate information
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
This is a pretty incredible time to be alive. Because of the internet and the sheer amount of research scientists have accumulated, we have access to a greater depth and breadth of information than at any other point in history. And with the widespread use of social media pages like Facebook and Twitter, it’s easier than ever to share information, typically with just one or two clicks. But as more humans are able to upload and share information by various formats, the more the accuracy of the information varies- from accurate, to partly, to not at all true.
The phrase “do your own research” has been used by both misinformation mythbusters and conspiracy theorists, but as we continue to upload more and more information to the internet, the harder that becomes to decipher the truth. Even citing sources and scientific articles doesn’t guarantee that something is accurate. So how can we find reliable, credible, trustworthy sources to determine if that article our neighbors post are true?
1. Consider the questions you're asking
Before opening up a Google tab, consider defining and considering all answers for the question you want to ask. Oftentimes after you read an article, you want to be more specific than asking “is this all true?”. Misinformation can be embedded between a few correct nuggets of information, so it will be helpful to list your main questions upfront, and to search for the answer to more than one of them. It can also be beneficial to consider your own biases and the types of information you may encounter. When asking a question or developing a hypothesis, it’s natural to want one answer to be the right one, but make sure you’re prepared to potentially encounter the opposite. Even super seasoned researchers go into their work with a well developed and supported hypothesis, and they are very often wrong. But don’t despair. We often find even more interesting answers than we initially predicted!
2. Consider the author’s authority and potential conflicts of interest
Before I read an article, blog, or Instagram post, I try to learn more about the author (if you forget this step, you can always go back and look before sharing!). I literally click on their name if it’s an article in a newspaper or magazine to bring up their bio/ previous articles. I often go to the profile of someone on Instagram and see if they list credentials or a webpage. If I cannot get enough information there or want to search more, I’ve also googled people. It’s important to understand how much wisdom they have on the topic (not just book knowledge!), which can be assessed by their credentials and experience.
When looking at credentials, look to see if the credential matches the area of expertise. An MD doesn’t qualify someone to give nutritional advice. Registered dieticians need extra credentials and training to work with patients with eating disorders in the appropriate manner. A PhD in psychology doesn’t qualify someone to give medical advice (ahem, Dr. Phil), and an engineering PhD from MIT does not provide the necessary training to be an expert in “creating the internet”, GMOs, and COVID-19 (ahem, Shiva Ayyadurai). As another example, I’m a research scientist trained in immunology and physiology, yet I'm not an expert in vaccine development or strength and conditioning since those aren’t my areas of expertise. I know a lot about these topics, but I stick to general knowledge/ topics in these areas and refer specific questions to people with experience in those fields.
Even more important in the health and fitness space, look at the programs/ universities that grant degrees or certifications to the people you’re interested in knowing more about. For example, someone who uses Dr. but is a naturopathic doctor has had very different “education” than an MD or DO. As another example, I recently came across the page for someone with a master’s in nutrition, yet the information she was spouting did not sound evidence based. Turns out, her degree was from the Maryland University for Integrative Health, which not only offers a degree in “Oriental Medicine” (not politically correct or even a real thing!!), the nutrition program was accredited by an organization that only accredits one other program, so it doesn't meets the standards of the main organizations.
Depending on the topic, experience is also super important (but don’t mistake experience for followers or shares). I have two degrees in exercise science, and I can explain basic principles of training like adaptation, progression, and macronutrient requirements. But I don’t have experience training clients, so I would not be the best person to write training programs for you or articles about “improving client motivation” or “tailoring a training plan to client needs.” Another consideration is that while science writers for major national newspapers and magazines may not always have science degrees, if they have substantial experience writing about science topics, they’re probably a reliable source. Their pieces are often referring to expert sources and vetted by experienced editors. Alone, credentials and/ or experience cannot 100% confirm or deny the author’s credibility, but the lack thereof should raise a warning flag.
And last, see if you can easily note striking biases or conflicts of interest for the author. Do they use fear mongering techniques to sell you a problem and also the solution? Do they talk a lot about “chemicals” and “pesticides” and also sell organic products? Is this controversial opinion article the only thing they’ve written? Are their rebuttal articles negating their work or are they supported by other known misinformation peddlers? Again, selling products or services, owning a business, and having unpopular opinions doesn’t 100% confirm or deny the author’s credibility, but it should raise another warning flag.
3. Consider the platform/ webpage
Before diving into the article, I also make note of the platform. Is it relatively reliable or is it a webpage with well known biases that has previously promoted conspiracy theories? Is it well respected for journalism ethics like The New York Times or is it known to be more biased and less credible like The New York Post? Is it a publication like The Atlantic that is well respected for science writing or is it a publication like Medium where anyone can publish opinion pieces? Even Youtube and published books can have a wide range of credibility, as some well respected scientists run their own channels and publish books. But as we’re seeing with things like COVID-19, celery juice cleanses, and fat diets, there are a whole lot of people also use these platforms to market misinformation.
Government and academic sites (.gov and .edu) often publish the safest and most agreed upon information at the time, though blog articles and opinions can also appear on some .edu sites and even professors and scientists can hold unsupported opinions. Major science organizations like the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the American Association for Immunologists, and the American Heart Association are fantastic sources for statements that represent entire fields, though .org sites can have a huge variety of credibility in different areas. And blogs and Medium pieces aren’t all bad! Like above, the source of an article will never 100% ensure its credibility. But as you may be thinking, as you gather more information about the known credibility of the author and their platform, you can start to gather evidence about how credible their claims might be. And you can always search further to see what else is out there! For example, feel free to search for other articles on finding good sources. You should find similar info on other sites.
4. Consider the sources, quality of the data, and the general consensus
Perhaps the most important things are the claims made in the post or article. Does the author rely on anecdotes or stories or do they use citations of supporting data?
If there are citations, looking at these sources is the easiest place to start. I look for two primary things. A) Does the conclusion of the article support the claim it’s being used to support? (You’ll find that oftentimes citations don’t actually support the statements they’re used to support). And B) was the study set up appropriately to answer the question? You should consider if the study was a case study or experiments done in cells, mice, or humans, if the authors used controls, the sample size, how meaningful the data is, and there’s any sort of mechanism or proposed mechanism that would support the data. It’s also important to recognize the limitations of a study and the grey areas in a field, and it’s important for anyone citing the study to as well. This might be the hardest thing for non-scientists to do, so I’ll talk more about how to read and interpret scientific studies in later posts!
But even if the citations support the claims made, can you trust that to be the full picture? Not usually. One research study is never able to tell the whole story, and we often need many layers of data and many angles of the question to fully decipher what data means, so whether or not citations are listed, I would still do some digging myself. I use Google Scholar or Pubmed to search for relevant terms to determine if the citation you read is an outlier or it if fits into what’s generally known in the field. I usually flip through ~5-10 abstracts to see if they generally agree with each other, and ~10-20 if the data seems to be all over the place. I also put more weight into reviews and meta-analyses, which provide a wider perspective on what’s published, but note that you may actually have to read the review article, and that these types of publications can have biases too. I’ll talk about these different types of publications in a future article too.
Determining the consensus in a field is really important, because even though scientists love to argue, we often agree on the major conclusions supported data or can at least agree that we don’t know enough to make sweeping conclusions (often the answer!). It’s incredibly rare for new studies or hypotheses to completely overthrow our way of thinking. They often fill in the gaps, provide clarification, or refine ideas to be more correct, building on each other like a set of stairs. Fields can grow and shift over time, but this happens slowly as we gather better technologies and more evidence. Good scientists will not widely broadcast their hypotheses on Instagram or Youtube before following the data and gathering all evidence to put into a peer reviewed publication. Because for the many many cool ideas that we have every day, only a few really come to fruition when you start to look at the data.
The evidence behind arguments is the primary thing I use to determine if an article is credible, but this is harder to assess in areas of science you’re less experienced with. By looking at the credibility of the author, the source, and the data, hopefully you can feel a little more confident sharing an article or a post. And guess what? Every once in awhile we’re all duped. I’ve taken down a few posts that I’ve shared in my day. So don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed to fall for misinformation. Because those that spread it are really good at their jobs.
Are you still with me, did that seem like a lot? Because I know it is! But the good news is that the more often you do this, the better you’ll get, and the more it will seem like second nature. Plus, once you’ve looked into the credibility of someone or their platform, you likely will remember it and can follow them without looking into it again. And as you become more familiar with a field of science, you’ll build up understanding and have to do a little less digging every day.