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Contemporary Concepts in Publishing

Misinformation and Publishing in the Digital Age

 

Nathan Boutin, Associate Editor

October 2022


The speed at which information travels has drastically increased over the last few decades. In the distant past, messages had to be sent by physical letters or simple word of mouth. It could take weeks before news of a significant event travelled around the globe. If you ever played the Telephone Game as a kid, though, you know that the details of the original message could vary wildly by the time the last person received the message. It was reasonable, then, that false information could be broadly shared because access to the original source was often a problem.

Communication is nearly instantaneous today, but there are still many issues with misinformation. While many people have ready access to the Internet, cable television, or radio broadcasts, conflicting messages are seemingly more common than ever. You have probably heard the phrase, “Well, that’s not what I heard” uttered more than a few times, probably for a litany of reasons. Posts on social media are also a major source of conflicting information—everyone has their take, their version of events, and their preferred sources. The digital age has created more outlets for information than at any point in history, but the sheer amount of information can be overwhelming, sometimes leading to the spread of misinformation.

How does misinformation spread?

Misinformation can spread through books, scholarly articles, newspapers, and any other channel of communication, but these days a significant number of people receive their news from social media or other online sources. There are several reasons misinformation spreads online:

1) Information is posted as events are happening in real time. This can cause confusion as the story is updated and assumptions are made, creating multiple narratives.

2) People tend to share information that they assume to be true. Emotions often guide what we believe is real, and misinformation often appears to be reasonable or innocuous enough to be true.

3) Trusted sources can be difficult to identify. “Official” sources may be pseudonyms for unqualified channels, and people will share information from these channels without verifying them.

4) Echo chambers are created via algorithms. Social media algorithms are designed to keep us engaged and infinitely scrolling, so we are shown content that aligns with our views and perceptions of the world.

These problems are part of the growing pains of the digital age. Nearly unlimited information requires methods for filtering it, however, such methods are not yet robust enough to be employed on a broad scale.

How is misinformation different from disinformation?

When discussing misinformation, it is important to distinguish it from disinformation. They share many of the same elements, but the determining factor is intent. Misinformation is disseminated with the belief that the information is true. Disinformation, however, is spread with the explicit knowledge that the “facts” are fabricated. It is done with malicious intent and can include various forms of propaganda, or so-called “fake news,” distributed by individuals, institutions, or even governments. These efforts are usually coordinated by groups to mislead and undermine the public.

Does misinformation exist in scientific publishing?

In scientific publishing, most actors are not actively trying to harm the community—misinformation, when it occurs, is more a side effect of the “publish or perish” culture that has been cultivated, creating publication bias, hastily written conclusions, and inconsistent peer review; these errors may go undetected and lead to misinformation.

Any given paper is a smaller part of a much larger scope of research, but even the statistically significant results of many studies cannot prove a conclusion. Authors that do not obtain statistically significant results, and which may not be considered novel or interesting enough for publication, may decide to not write a paper and instead pursue other projects. This phenomenon, known as publication bias, can unintentionally skew the landscape of published material toward those studies that have exciting results. Over time, publication bias and the lack of a diverse dataset can create the illusion of verifiable truth.

Furthermore, in papers that are accepted for publication, statistics can be misinterpreted by the authors to create excitement around their results. Researchers can even misuse concepts such as the P value, a common value used for judging the strength of scientific evidence. In fact, in 2016, the American Statistical Association released a statement regarding the potential misuse of the P value and noted that it was “never intended to be a substitute for scientific reasoning.” Employing sound principles during research and manuscript preparation can counteract this, but authors often feel pressured to overstate the relevance of their study because there are many incentives to publish at high rates. Journals are pressured to secure quality papers, and institutions are urged to obtain funding. This loop is fed by productivity metrics, which results in research with unintentional errors. This leads into the issue of predatory journals, which take advantage of authors that are eager for publication.

All of this emphasizes the need for quality peer review. Peer review is used to evaluate whether research is appropriately conducted and of publishable quality. However, even peer-reviewed papers can be subject to withdrawal due to poor scientific methodology or questionable ethics; thus, peer review can also be flawed. Peer review is usually done voluntarily, and journals must work to keep quality reviewers. As a result, poorly written and misleading papers can occasionally slip through the cracks if knowledgeable, expert reviewers are not available, leading to the spread of misinformation.

How can we fix it?

There are serious repercussions to letting misinformation in scientific publishing go unchecked. Misleading conclusions and publication bias narrow the playing field for researchers, waste resources on papers that need to be debunked, and damage the trustworthiness of scholarly work. There is no easy solution to the problems outlined above, as they are all baked into the industry. However, a few improvements could help reduce the spread of misinformation in science. First, we can encourage the publication of study results that are not “exciting,” so long as they have scientific merit, to challenge the prevailing narrative or consensus. Second, it may be helpful to better incentivize quality peer review to stir up support among authors and reviewers. Third, reducing the importance of publication to advance their careers could motivate and enable researchers to pursue important, although not necessarily groundbreaking, research.

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