"This matters because scientific publishers are companies selling a product, and the product is peer review. True, they also publish papers (electronically in the case of these journals), but if you just wanted to publish something electronically, you could do that yourself for free. Preprint archives, blogs, your own website – it’s easy to get something on the internet." - Neuroskeptic, Discovery Magazine
A couple of weeks ago, a science blogger for Discovery Magazine, who goes by Neuroskeptic, published a hoax paper in 4 "scientific journals" that was chalk-full of Star Wars references such as midi-chlorians (the microbe responsible for the Force), Darth Vader, and published by the world famous Lucas McGeorge, PhD. Neuroskeptic also added another layer of easy-to-identify hoaxiness by copy/paste-ing excerpts from Wikipedia articles.
While the paper is hilarious, especially if you're Star Wars fan, it leaves us questioning: if this paper could get past these four scientific journals' peer review process, then what else is getting passed off as evidence?
The traditional model of scientific publishing works by researchers submitting their papers to journals. The editor of the journal determines whether or not it should be submitted for peer review, and, if it "graduates" to peer review, selects a committee to read the paper. If it passes the committee's review process, the paper gets published in the journal, and the public then pays to read it.
Predatory journals, on the other hand, use the open access model to get researchers to pay them to publish their papers. Then, they turnaround and allow the public to view the papers for free. While the open access model is gaining a lot of support and, in theory, can have a huge impact on how we gain knowledge, it's being exploited - making journals like these as useful as fake news.
So, how can we tell if a journal is credible and not predatory? Check their impact factor.
Until the ethics of journals publishing via open access gets cleaned up, the current gold standard for rating the credibility of a journal is to look up their impact factor: the higher the impact factor, the more times the journal and it's published material is cited in other papers within a given year. Citing a paper and journal multiple times puts more pressure on that journal, and the researchers, to submit well-designed experiments and publishing unbiased results.
If a journal has a low impact factor, it says that it's peer reviewed so it must be unbiased, right? Unfortunately, there is no clearly defined standard for what peer review is. Predatory journals, like the ones that published the fake paper, don't have checks and balances for who exactly is peer reviewing the papers submitted to them.
A "good" journal selects a peer review committee of about 3-4 individuals, per paper submission, who are at the top of their class for the subject the paper is trying to publish in. These reviewers are scientists who published in their field, and have a good reputation in the scientific community.
Oftentimes, predatory journals don't screen their reviewers so we have no idea the type of training, expertise, or experience these reviewers are bringing to the table when they are asked to review research.
For the general public, reading research papers and looking up impact factors can be time consuming. So, we need to create criteria for finding sources we can trust!
For me, this is what I ask myself when I'm reading birth-related material:
- Does the article offer research citations?
- Is this a blog, article from a magazine, or research paper? Check the citations, and check if the author of the citations is a credible source (this can be as simple as doing a Google search of the author and seeing what research institution they're associated with).
- Is the language used inflammatory or showing some sort of bias (ex: toxic, best, disgusting, etc.)?
- Is this article presenting facts or opinion?
- When the article presents a fact, is there a research citation associated with it? Or is it from a magazine? Blog?
- Does the author have anything to gain financially from this article (affiliate links)?
- Does the language used in this article indicate any favoritism for particular results?
- Is the article citing a case study (just one event) or looking at a whole population of people? Case studies look at unique events that don't necessarily apply to the entire population.
Doing research in the maternity care and newborn field is especially important today as we can get caught up in scare tactics and media frenzy. When we aren't careful about the stories that we read in the news, often referring to case studies, we may feel coerced in to making medical decisions that don't apply to our own personal circumstances.
We have to be objective about what we are reading, how that reading applies to us as individuals (personal health history, values, goals, etc.), and making decisions in collaboration with our care teams.
When it comes to picking out online resources, I turn to these sites to look at the most current research evidence in birth work:
- Cochrane Library
- PubMed, PubMed Central
- Evidence Based Birth®*
- Childbirth Connection
- Midwife Thinking
- Science and Sensibility*
But, don't take my word for it! Go through these sites and ask yourself the questions above!
* Disclaimer * I am an Evidence Based Birth® Instructor and Lamaze Childbirth Educator-In-Training. Evidence Based Birth® and Science and Sensibility/Lamaze International are not compensating me for my recommendations to their sites.
Did you read articles that only made you feel pressured or judged for making certain decisions? What was your process for sorting out data and advice about your pregnancy and care?