Should academics guard against the spread of faulty science in the news and social media?

Posted by Danielle Padula, community karma 473

Will scholars become the future “watchdogs” of society, and furthermore should they? I recently came across Aled Edwards’ Healthy Debate opinion piece “Peering into Peer-Review: Implications for Web-Enabled Scientific Debate," wherein he argues that the news, particularly in the age of social media, is a prime culprit for spreading scientific misinformation picked up by reporters—often for sensational value—and then telephoned throughout the general public. In this way, although recognizably predatory articles with too-good-to-be-true outcomes remain un-cited among scholars, they can become the most cited sources among the general public and cause for exorbitant financial waste spent disproving the frenzy of faulty research run amuck. Edwards’ point leads me to wonder—is it the academic community’s job to not only recognize predatory publishers but also call out instances of predatory sources being cited as fact? And could taking this “watchdog” role reduce the growing prevalence of predatory journals by publicly shaming those involved? 


Nick Lewis, community karma 145
This is an interesting thought.  We don’t want social media to become a place for researchers to nitpick each other’s work, but when it comes to calling out obviously bad scholarship I think they absolutely should.  Anyone who cares about knowledge should be actively pitting against the spread of misinformation.  As you point out, this problem has greater urgency than ever before. The World Economic Foundation’s Outlook on the Global Agenda lists “The Rapid Spread of Misinformation Online” as the number ten 2014 Top-Trend of Global Significance. Of course with the influx of so much new information into the public sphere, especially via social media, there is a greater likelihood than ever before that misinformation will take flight.  It is more important now than ever before that academics take a stand for quality content and against bogus works.
almost 10 years ago
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Rob Walsh, community karma 1466

I think academics should definitely speak out when they see misinformation being spread via every avenue they have available. To rapidly fight fact with fiction they probably need to take to social media.

I don't think debunking falsehoods is necessarily only something academics alone can do. Part of the fight has to be to make these misquoted studies more available so they other journalists and the general public can identify misinformation as well. For example, a journalist at NPR identified in her article "When Science Becomes News, The Facts Can Go Up In Smoke" found that many respected, national publications reported conclusions from a study on the effects of marijuana that were simply wrong because they misunderstood the source material. If a member of the general public wants to see the article for themselves and reach their own conclusions, the full text of the article is available behind a pay-wall for $30 for one day access. How can people call out bogus conclusions if they can't access the original source material?

Availability of the data behind studies is another issue. For instance, a graduate student named Thomas Herndon found very significant MSExcel errors in a study that has been used as ammunition for worldwide pro-austerity policy. He appeared on the Colbert Report and told the story behind his asking the authors for the data, eventually receiving it, and quickly finding the spreadsheet error. When data is more available scholars and the public are able to replicate studies or find the flaws therein. In cases like Herndon's, the stakes can be very high.

almost 10 years ago
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Jared Bielby, community karma 57

You raise an excellent question, ones that begs an information accountability on the part of scholars, but also I think on the part of every citizen. In my thesis research I asked the very same question, except I propose that information accountability and guardianship is not as black and white as tradition would have it, specifically due to the proliferation of ICTs, and ends in questions of censorship and information monopoly as the vice to misinformation. I explore the nature of collaborative information & knowledge studies, where I've outlined a methodology towards a Collaborative Knowledge Ethics as encapsulating the contemporary cultural postmodern understanding of knowledge as freed from authoritative and peer reviewed standards. 

The nature of collaborative information & knowledge models such as the wiki concept, wikipedia, wikimedia, open source, copyleft, crowdsource, social media, knowledge commons, creative commons, and collective intelligence are telling of the nature of information dialectics and the ebb and flow of information control. It is noteworthy to compare two supposedly opposite standards of authoritative knowledge, those being on one hand the traditional peer reviewed journal and on the other hand Wikipedia (yes...for better or worse, Wikipedia IS the standard as far as cultural dialectics is concerned, which is what you confirm in your question). While the traditional argument would posit that the peer-reviewed journal is representative of highly qualified information, it would insist that collaborative information & knowledge, as per the wiki phenomenon, is neither qualified nor quantifiable. However, the argument can be made that both peer-reviewed information and collaborative information are susceptible to the same cyclic nature of monopoly and control and that the state of transparency of either at any given time is a matter of the waxing and waning of cultural dialectics. Whereas peer-reviewed information circles become closed systems of dead scholasticism where information often becomes nothing more than self-serving affirmations of already established parameters, so too is the wiki phenomenon, as exemplified by Wikipedia, while on one hand a catalyst to information dissolution through saturation, on the other hand a monopolized product of a select few.

A good example of the concerns of Media Ethics for example is the above noted scenario that posits Wikipedia as both an authoritative and un-authoritative control of information flow. While scholarship maintains, perhaps rightfully so, that authoritative flow of information should stem from peer reviewed scholarship into the wider contexts of culture, culture has taken “information” into its own hands, creating a middle-man that supplants information before the so-called natural process of dissemination can take place. Where once we had a cultural faith in information as a priori to communication, we now face a culture that has hijacked not only the credibility of information but also the credibility of credibility itself. Dissatisfied and impatient with the slog and staunchness of authority and “high-brow” scholarship, culture has re-interpreted not only information, but the very idea of information, taking taxonomy, ontology and epistemology into its own hands (unaware, of course, of what those foundations are) and creating the wiki phenomenon, which in turn gives birth to such phenomena as Wikipedia and other collaborative knowledge structures. Can one argue that the above are really only one phenomenon, manifestations of the same thing - affordance to a digital culture in the very process of tearing down the power structures that in form it?

We need to consider the possible ironies and double standards posited in this very assumption of peer-review as incontestable, and should address the red flags of censorship implied within, at least coming from an information ethics point of view. Does not even the scholarly control of information through peer-reviewed avenues constitute a form of censorship? It is not unthinkable that bias, chance, and ideology guide the process. A large portion of the peer review process involves not just fact checking but also capitalizing and prioritizing based on ‘suitability’, where only the ‘very best’ work (based on what parameters?) sees the light of day. Nathanial Enright points out that capitalism quickly turns information into a commodity (Enright, 2011). The best peer reviewed journals are also the most stringent, and rigorous competition weeds out everything but the ‘best’ submissions. In such a scenario it isn’t long before prestige becomes the motivating factor in publication. And what better sign of gross censorship than a drive towards ego before subject? As Casadevall and Fang point out, “The prestige of a journal has become a surrogate measure for the quality of the work itself. (Casadevall and Fang, 2009).

almost 10 years ago
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Joseph Quinn, community karma 71
Academics should, obviously, advance their ideas and defend their positions; however, these scholars should not be immune from criticism from the general public. If their theories are sound, than any criticism from fellow scholars, or casual hobbyists, should not be seen as a threat, and should be refuted. But, if scholars think, as they so often do, that this self-appointed priestly class is exempt from disapproval by the proletariat simply by virtue of their terminal degrees, I think they have forgotten a fundamental axiom of scholarship.
about 9 years ago
Your take reminds me of Jimmy Wales's site before Wikipedia, Nupedia (, and how it stands in contrast to Wikipedia itself. Nupedia relied strictly on scholarly peer-review for content compared to Wikipedia's "anyone-can-edit" philosophy. Therefore you had a kind of "priestly class" who determined what articles could be published to Nupedia. As a result material made it into the site very slowly. After a year only a dozen articles were published (Issacson, The Innovators). Wikipedia and it's "anyone-can-participate" ethos resulted in over 100k articles by March 2003 and at that point Wales shut down Nupedia and relegated it to the dustbin of history.
Rob Walsh – about 9 years ago
It is remarkable how quickly the conversation goes silent when the researchers and scholars control the number of microphones available. They, too, run out of intelligent things to say.
Joseph Quinn – about 9 years ago
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