Science journalism: Judging the quality of your source

byJulie Clayton
Jan 19, 2012 in Miscellaneous

Finding stories is but the first step in journalism. Next is the important step of judging the reliability of the source. Science journalists are ‘experts in experts.' They spend much of their time finding which experts are right. How can you tell good scientific research from "bad science?"

  • Is the scientist recommended by a trusted source? This may be another scientist, or a scientific society or another organization such as a disease charity.

  • Who does the scientist work for? Does he/she work for a reputable company or a university?

  • How is the study funded? Check whether this is through public or private money by looking in annual reports, in scientific papers, and on websites. A publicly funded study, for example, will have had its protocol scrutinized by experts in order to compete against others for funding.

  • What has the scientist published previously? Check research publications e.g. via PubMed or Google Scholar. Bear in mind, however, that not all scientists have all their work or other professional information on the internet. This is particularly true for scientists in developing countries where internet access remains limited and scientific research may be published in journals that lack the resources needed to become accessible online.

  • Is the scientist likely to profit from the sale of any products relating to the work? Many journals require authors to declare competing financial interest. Less scrupulous scientists fail to disclose these in their publications. A journalist may therefore have to investigate further – for example, by talking to contacts of the scientist to ask why they are making a certain claim and about the timing of the claim. Is it intended to coincide with a stock market flotation of company shares, for example? It might even be interesting to write a story exposing such behavior.

  • Is the scientist's claim published in a peer-reviewed journal? Scientific claims made directly to the media without first passing the scrutiny of peer review should be treated with caution, as the quality of the research has not been validated.

You can read more about finding and judging science stories in the online science journalism course of the World Federation of Science Journalists. All ten lessons are available for free in English, Arabic, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Turkish.