Think about the books you read that are written by experienced best-selling authors. The author’s talent and track record for producing bestsellers are likely what drew you to those books. If you found out your favorite author was publishing a new book, would you buy it? You’d probably trust that author to continue to produce quality work.
Similarly, with published scientific journal articles, an expert is more likely to produce credible and high-quality work.
So, how do you know if an author is credible?
A good place to start is an author’s credentials. Here are three things to consider:
- What are the author’s credentials?
- Is the author experienced?
- Does the author have any conflicts of interest?
Let’s take a look at each one of these questions in more detail.
What are the author’s credentials?
Ask yourself if the educational background of an author relates to the topic of their research paper.
If a physicist is writing about internal medicine, you may want to ensure that there are other internal medicine experts on the paper. By contrast, a virologist with over 20 years of research experience likely knows a fair bit about HIV or COVID-19.
Sometimes an author may be listed as having graduated from a prestigious university but appears nowhere on the university’s records. Beware! This could be a sign of a fake author. Some fraudulent papers use fake credentials and author names to boost their papers and increase their publication chances. An author’s information on a journal should be easily accessible and verifiable.
Is the author experienced?
Next, ask yourself if the author has studied the subject matter of the article before.
An author’s previous publication history can give you an idea of their expertise in the article’s subject matter. An author with an extensive backlist of published papers in infectious disease will be a very credible source for a new SARS-CoV-2 article.
An author with no previous experience in a field may raise concerns about the quality of the research they’ll produce—especially if the findings are not consistent with the medical literature.
You can find an author’s history of published papers by searching their name on databases such as PubMed and ResearchGate. These search engines should provide you with a detailed list of the author’s research subjects and journal publications. You will also see how prolific the author’s work is and whether their research is published in highly ranked journals.
Does the author have any conflicts of interest?
Then, ask yourself if the author benefits (e.g., financial or otherwise) from the paper’s findings. Are there sponsors who benefit from the study results? Where is the funding for the research study coming from?
Sometimes an author has ulterior motives for publishing a paper. Imagine you read a study that proved that a particular vitamin eliminated gray hairs. After, you discovered that the authors of the study had stocks in the vitamin company. Would you trust the paper’s findings?
When an author has another interest that interferes with their primary interest of producing unbiased scientific research, the author has a conflict of interest. These secondary interests (e.g., financial compensation or career advancement) can bias an author and affect the study results. Conflicts of interest can be found in the article’s disclosure of interests section.
Discovering where and how the authors receive funding can be critical in evaluating a paper’s credibility. Most articles will include this information at the end of the paper, but it doesn’t hurt to dig into an author’s background and look for affiliations that may bias their research.
Are there sponsors who benefit from the study results?
Sometimes, an author may be part of a company’s pharmaceutical or advisory board. A study with positive findings may directly benefit the author’s financials or advancement in the company. There may also be a personal relationship between the authors and the sponsors funding the study. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that the results are inaccurate, it’s enough to warrant further scrutiny. This information should be available in the conflict of interests (e.g., disclosure of interests) part of the paper.
Where is the funding for the research study coming from?
A paper can have problems with conflicts of interest even if the authors are not financially compromised. Look at where the scientific paper received its research funding; if the funding is from a pharmaceutical company that’s trying to establish the effectiveness of their drug—could this influence the results? Other funding sources include government grants and non-governmental agencies.
Authors may not disclose hidden sources of funding for their study. For example, a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 reported that computed tomography scans positively diagnosed stage I lung cancer in asymptomatic patients (Resnik 2009). These results were almost immediately disputed by other teams studying the same subject (Harris 2011). An in-depth report from a journalist at The New York Times found that the study’s authors had received funding from a private foundation and were themselves the president and secretary-treasurer of the foundation (Harris 2011). Moreover, the private foundation had received funding from a tobacco company. These funding sources were not disclosed in the original journal article.
Where do you find funding information in an article?
Most publications insist that researchers list all possible conflicts of interest in their paper. However, it is mainly up to the author’s discretion what to include when disclosing their conflicts of interest.
So, the next time you come across an article that makes wild claims that raise alarm bells, you may need to do some extra digging into the author’s credentials and affiliations outside of the provided disclosures. Now, let’s say that you come across a great article written by experienced researchers that you’re interested in. Are you wondering about the participants included in the study and whether they’re appropriate for the study question? Check out our next article to learn how to assess study participants and evaluate how they were chosen.