Readers Beware

There is an editorial in Analytical Chemistry that is causing a wee bit of a stir. On first glance, I felt my blood pressure rising, but after scanning the editorial I came to the conclusion that the comments were largely meaningless.  Have a look at the editorial, then come back to read the rest.  Oh, and pop by ChemBark for Paul’s take on matters.

Back? Read it?

This magnifies, for the lay reader, the dual problems in assessing credibility: a) not having a single stable employer (like a newspaper, which can insist on credentials and/or education background) frees the blogger from the requirement of consistent information reliability

Let’s have a discussion about how we assess credibility. But let’s be brave here – let’s discuss credibility as a global issue, not just one restricted to bloggers.  (mainly because I’m truly sick of the ‘bloggers aren’t credible because you don’t know who they really are’ stuff).  As a scientist, I am required to question the validity of every piece of information I generate or encounter.  This can be anything from an instrument reading, to a tabloid headline.  I am also trained, although more from high school history, to look at the author of an item, or the instrument generating data, and make a judgement as to the validity of the source.   You remember primary, secondary and tertiary sources, right?  Well the same is true of science.  Publications in journals like Analytical chemistry are very much secondary sources – research has been written up, edited, peer reviewed, and generally spun to tell a specific story that sometimes bears little resemblance to the path taken to obtain the data reported.  Laboratory notebooks are the primary source in case you’re wondering.  Tertiary sources like news reports, review articles, books, textbooks, podcasts, blogs or anything else about  a piece of research all require someone to process the information from the secondary source into something or other.  And make judgements about what to include or exclude.   And therefore the consumers of any of these pieces – from publication to podcast – must make a value judgement about the validity of the information and the credibility of the author.

There are no gold standard guarantee about author credibility.  Scientific papers can contain fraudulent data, newspaper articles often pervert the facts to simplify reporting to the point of inaccuracy, and just because someone is  a free lancer, doesn’t mean that they are without professionalism, reliability and honesty.   At this point I could link to 20 blogs that report science issues professionally, reliably and honestly; with greater consistency and passion for the subject than many newspaper articles (for all their credibility) that I’ve seen.  Regarding educational background, some of the most outstanding science blogs are written by people with such diverse backgrounds – academics, graduate students, people with degrees, fascinated people with little formal science training – educational background has little to do with turning out quality. Open mindedness and a willingness to hold oneself to certain standards do.  If you want examples, look at the blog roll to your right.

Ultimately I’m finding it hard to be irritated by this editorial because I think that the so-called internet megaphone is actually pretty muted (this blog gets around 30 hits a day so I don’t think I’m exerting any undue influence with my inconsistent blogging).  I also think that Professor Murray should have done  a little more research into blogging before using his somewhat larger microphone – an editorial – to lay waste to science bloggers.   Reader beware of blogs? Reader beware of anything more like.