The fight against fake scientific news

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Academic publishers are railing against inaccurate stories and asking the scientific community to do more, writes Matt McKay

As a result of an increasing number of reports that show fake scientific news is on the rise, the scholarly publishing trade body STM is calling on the research community to be ever more vigilant.

STM’s CEO Ian Moss believes everyone in the research eco-system has a duty to play a more active role in calling out misleading information and conspiracy theories: ‘If we are to protect the integrity of science and the reputation of all those employed in this vital industry, then we should all take greater responsibility for spotting false scientific information and use our knowledge and authority to correct it.’

In fact, very little officially published scientific research is proven to be fake and even less gets through the rigorous safeguards publishers have put in place to catch inaccurate science. Many publishers have formed specialist teams to investigate suspicious research, whilst others have adopted new technologies which identify plagiarism or manipulation of images or data.

Others have invested in sophisticated image screening technologies which can spot a possible problem with an image—such as low resolution, potential splicing, image duplication within a paper, and potential image manipulation.

Publishers have two lines of defence in catching poor science – human and technological. The journal’s editorial teams provide the first stage of validation, making sure the research complies with internationally agreed ethical standards.

At this stage, editors are looking at the relevance, and scientific integrity of the research. They are also on the lookout for suspicious signs such as unverifiable institutional affiliation and plagiarism. If there are any grounds for suspicion, the paper will be examined by the publisher’s own ethics team or can by referred to the Committee for Publication Ethics – a global body charged with promoting accuracy and ethics in academic research.

The second line of defence is the peer review process under which experts in the specific field of research are asked to review the manuscript. Any questions over the validity of the research are challenged and batted back to the author for clarification.

On a few occasions, publishers have had to retract articles, but this is often because of new contradictory research rather than pure fakery. The volume of retractions is certainly up, but so too is the volume of published articles which currently runs at about three million a year.

The problem with the increase in fake science has been exacerbated by the rise of so-called ‘predatory journals’ which offer researchers a short-cut to publication on a receipt of a payment. These journals use none of the editorial safeguards that legitimate publishers have, with the result that the articles are frequently inaccurate and sometimes fraudulent. In many cases, researchers are duped into thinking their work will be properly peer reviewed, when, in fact, it will not.

STM itself plays an active role in Think.Check.Submit – a cross-industry initiative that aims to promote integrity and build trust in credible research and publications by helping researchers identify trusted journals and publishers. Whilst it may be easy to blame a few misguided scientists, the explosion of fake news is really down to social media and poor journalism.

Researchers at Stanford University have carried out research on misinformation disseminating online about using cannabis to cure cancer and found that 23.5 per cent  of social media content on alternative cancer cures suggested the use of cannabis. The top false story promoting cannabis as a treatment for cancer generated 4.26 million engagements, as opposed to the 0.036 million engagements that were linked to the top accurate and debunking news story.

Of course, the prime example of the power of inaccurate science started in 1999 when a study by Andrew Wakefield suggested that the MMR vaccine could be linked to autism. The story went viral and created the anti-vax movement, which persists today even though the Wakefield paper was debunked and retracted.

Researchers writing in Psychological Science found that the main reason for sharing fake news was not because the sharer believed it was true, but because they failed to consider whether the news was accurate. The motivation for sharing was often linked to political or ideological belief.

Platforms like Facebook are increasingly on alert for potentially misleading news and have introduced new features to highlight suspicious news, but some people believe scientists could do more to stem the flow of fake news.

The researchers Henning Hopf, Alain Krief, Goverdhan Mehta and Stephen A. Matlin call for scientists to take more responsibility for fighting fake news.

They write in the Royal Society Journal Open Science: ‘Scientists must be willing to speak out when they see false information being presented in social media, traditional print or broadcast press. They must use these media fully themselves to offer facts and evidence in succinct layman's language while emphasising the breadth and depth of the scientific consensus which underpins the present state of knowledge and pointing to the lack of scientific rigour in the false information.’

A recent article in Scientific American listed the top eight myths about Covid 19 circulating social media. In each case, the misinformation has been perpetuated by politicians:

  • Covid 19 was started in a Lab in Wuhan;
  • Covid 19 is no worse than the flu;
  • You don’t need to wear a mask;
  • Wealthy elites are using the virus to profit from vaccines;
  • Hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment;
  • Increases in cases are the result of increased testing;
  • Herd immunity will protect us if we let the virus spread through the population; and
  • A Covid-19 vaccine will be unsafe.

STM urges everyone in the academic community to speak out against insidious false claims which undermine the trust in, and integrity of science and threaten the wellbeing of the global population.

There are a number of ways to assess a story for its veracity. The journal Nature recently published eight useful ways to quickly spot false information:

  • Source suspicion. Vague, untraceable sources, such as ‘a doctor friend of a friend’ or ‘scientists say’ without further details, should ring alarm bells;
  • Bad language. Most trustworthy sources are regular communicators, so poor spelling, grammar or punctuation are grounds for suspicion;
  • Emotional contagion. If something makes you angry or overjoyed, be on your guard. Miscreants know that messages that trigger strong emotions get shared the most;
  • News gold or fool’s gold? Genuine scoops are rare. If information is reported by only one source, beware — especially if it suggests that something is being hidden from you;
  • False accounting. Use of fake social-media accounts, such as @BBCNewsTonight, is a classic trick. Look out for misleading images and bogus web addresses, too;
  • Oversharing. If someone urges you to share their sensational news, they might just want a share of the resulting advertising revenue;
  • Follow the money. Think about who stands to gain from you believing extraordinary claims; and
  • Fact-check check. Go past the headlines and read a story to the end. If it sounds dubious, search fact-checking websites to see whether it has already been debunked.

Matt McKay is director of communications at the International Association of STM Publishers