Context and credibility in scientific evidence

16 June, 2017

Annelise Anderson

Being sensitive to change, and adapting working relationships accordingly, is perhaps the best way of ensuring that scientific evidence works for those who depend on it.

C0146079 Annelise Andersen staff portrait

Credibility in scientific research is determined by where it is published. For scientists, getting your research accepted by particular journals can make a career. Well-respected titles afford validity to the pieces of research they showcase. Limited in number but powerful in reach, these publications offer a platform for scientists to exhibit their work in an otherwise crowded space.

But how has the digital age affected this publishing tradition?

The internet has transformed the publishing models of some scientific journals. Most now also exist in digital form, the global reach of which can bolster a scientist’s international profile significantly. Open-access journals, such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS) promise an increase in readership of scholarly work further yet. They retain the necessary rigour of reviewing scientific research but enable a great number of people to see the work. This makes for an attractive and reliable modern publishing model. However, the same cannot be said for all online science journals. So-called predatory journals, which have proliferated in recent years, might appear to offer scientists the same accolades as other science journals. However, these journals often bypass the recognised peer-review process that reassures researchers and their readers that their content is truthful. As a result, they are able to publish research of questionable quality or even bare-faced fake science. The internet campaign, ‘Think.Check.Submit’ has recently been launched to help researchers identify trusted journals for their research. However, at present dubious science journals and research remain widespread.

The importance of origin 

It can be hard to discern fake science from legitimate research. An eloquent, well-formatted piece of research written by someone who appears to have all the titles of a scientist can appear convincing. This is even more the case if you are not a member of the science community. Look closer, however, and there appear the threads of fabrication, disguising the actual authenticity of the research and/or position of the scientist. There are many reasons why someone would want to publish such unconsidered work, but they often revolve around immediate professional gain. Apart from those who create fake science, there are few who benefit from it. Arguably a hindrance, it complicates life for those who rely on scientific evidence for their work. Those who work in parliamentary science departments, for example, have depended upon robust science research to shape policy for years. The multiple publishing platforms that now exist mean they have to increasingly scrutinise sources of scientific information meticulously. Dr Chandrika Nath (current Deputy Director of the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology), has observed this already taking effect in her role. Reflecting on her own position, she has observed a shift in what others expect from her: “Instead of being asked to explain scientific facts, I am more likely to be asked where they come from.” This is not to disregard the content of research, but demonstrates the importance given to the reliability of its origins now too.

Who to trust?

When it comes to the scientific evidence chosen to inform policy across the world, there has been some consensus on the sources of information regarded as trustworthy. Respected scientists, experts, research institutions, academic bodies and so on can validate research. Despite sensitivity towards the origins of scientific evidence today, associations with respected individuals and organisations in research like these remain powerful. In some areas of the world these connections have even become stronger in recent years. Uganda is one such example.

Uganda: Research for policy

Uganda’s current national development plan includes discussion around the use of information to inform policy. The impact of this can already be seen in areas of policy. Emily Hayter, Programme Manager in INASP’s Evidence-Informed Policy Making Team, reported that following Parliament’s innovative Research Week held last August, “MPs and committees are requesting more information from the Department of Research”. This suggests a continued commitment towards research used in policy.

The success of research used for policy purposes in Uganda is made more likely by the Africa-wide movement to build a knowledge-based society across the continent (as can be seen in the African Union Agenda 2063). However, it is worth remembering that the research landscape at both a regional and country level is constantly shifting, as are cultural attitudes towards how knowledge is valued. The fact that research can play a significant role in policy-making in Uganda at the moment is down to many factors, not just one. As Ms Hayter observes the “wider context, combined with strong leadership of the Parliamentary Research department and an ambitious/motivated organisational culture, means they are in a good position to push on this issue.”

In the future this may all change. Countries already vary significantly in terms of the resources they have to build healthy research ecosystems. Changes to research practices can be beyond the control of any specific individual, department or organisation and can therefore quickly render any established processes redundant.

So, is there a paradox in the modern day relationship between research and policy? One the one hand, more and more trust and value is being given to those who produce scientific evidence. Yet, this comes with increased scrutiny over the contexts in which they are producing their work. Being sensitive to change, and adapting working relationships accordingly, is perhaps the best way of ensuring that scientific evidence works for those who depend on it.

What has been your experience? Do let us know in the comments below.

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