I so often see on social media posts with titles like “top five xyz that scientists recommend” and/or with statements like “science indisputably supports xyz”. The first thing that I look for in any article that says “Science/scientists say…” is a citation from a peer-reviewed study, and often none are to be found.
If there is no source to back up the (often strong) claims, where does this information come from? Who is really saying this? I am not asking for a full review of every paper ever published on said topic, I’d be happy in a lot of these articles if they even just cited one important paper on the topic that supports whatever claim is being made.
Why do I look for a reference?
I need to know that the science/scientist actually said this, and had to successfully defend what they found, how they found it and the conclusions they drew from such a study/experiment/review.
I am in the process of defending my 3-year-in-the-making study so that it can be published, so that I can share what myself and my colleagues have found. I have been defending this work for a year now, and I am close, but still not done checking and double checking my facts so that I can confidently say, “Scientist found xyz” when talking about the results of my study.
Why should you care about a citation?
Well, if you are reading an article because you want to be informed, then you need to read articles that are informed, and aren’t afraid to show where they got their information. A citation shows where their information is from, so you can look to see what the source is. Is it credible? Peer reviewed papers, are published in scientific journals via a rigorous process, and, by requirement are unbiased and without conflicts of interest. When submitting a paper for publication every author must disclose every single funding source as well as any potential conflicts of interests. As such, these papers are a great source for unbiased, well-supported facts. However, they can be hard to read and dense, but often the abstracts provide a short summary of the main findings. I’m not suggesting you read every article that is cited within a social media post, BUT I do think it’s important that the citations are there for credibility sake AND so people will stop using, “Scientist say” so casually. We don’t get to just say something and magically it becomes a thing.
Next time you’re reading an article and it says, “scientists say” be critical of it, look for a reference to a study. If there isn’t one, wonder why and look for a related article that includes some supporting evidence. You will be better informed and you will be more likely get correct, unbiased information on the topic. After all, isn’t that why you’re reading an article in the first place?
Are you a publishing scientist?
If you’re a scientist and you’re publishing papers I encourage you to write up an abstract for the general public for each paper you publish. Let’s make it easier for everybody to understand our language (without the jargon), let’s share the information we have with them so that they can make informed decisions. It is my goal in my career to have an abstract in English and in Spanish aimed at the general public for each paper I publish. I encourage you to do the same. Let’s work together to help make science available, applicable and understandable. Have you done this already? If so, please share your links to your abstracts!