Always ask: is it peer reviewed?

No matter how exciting or compelling a new piece of scientific or medical research is, you should always ask: Is it peer reviewed? And if not, why not?

Journals have a system for assessing the quality of research before it is published. This system is called peer review.  

Peer review means that other scientific experts working in the same field have been sent a research paper before publication and checked it for validity, significance and originality.  

If a scientific paper is published in a journal that’s a good sign it has been approved by other experts. Note, not all journals are peer reviewed – you can check usually check on their website. 

Some of the headlines about new scientific discoveries or breakthroughs you read or hear about have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. They may be initial findings reported at conferences, for example, or based on one scientist's opinion.

  • Some of this research may turn out to be accurate, but much of it is flawed or incomplete. Many reported findings, such as claims about “wonder cures” and “new dangers”, are never replicated by other research groups, or turn out to be untrue.
  • Unpublished research is no help to anyone – if you don’t publish exactly how a study was carried out, others can’t decide whether your methods were valid or repeat them to verify the results. As a society it is unwise to base decisions about health or public safety on work that may well be flawed.

Read I Don't Know What to Believe to learn more about peer review. Peer review isn’t perfect, but asking ‘is it peer reviewed?’ helps filter out the obviously bogus. 

Increasingly, as more scientists communicate on social media and write blogs about their work, there’s a phenomenon called post-publication peer review. That’s a term to describe the (usually informal) discussion that experts in any given area of research will have about newly published research in that area. So to get a sense of how a particular study was received by the wider scientific community, it’s worth searching for blogs or mentions from other scientists about it.

Tags: evidence

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