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Six Tips for Spotting Fake Health News

Research expert offers tactics for separating fact from fiction in medical studies

minute read

Written by Debra Melani on March 27, 2023
What You Need To Know

Research Professor Lisa Bero, PhD, offers tips on spotting fake health news and fraudulent studies.

Everybody can help fight the health misinformation epidemic by not falling for – and not sharing – fake news. It’s something experts like Lisa Bero, PhD, hope people will do for the sake of evidence-based science and, ultimately, societal health.

“Evidence helps inform our health policy and public health decisions. It’s obviously just one factor that goes into that, but it’s an absolutely critical factor, said Bero, PhD, a research professor with the Colorado School of Public Health’s Department of Health Systems, Management & Policy.

See related story on the dangers of the health misinformation epidemic.

“And if anything shakes our belief in the evidence or makes it hard to figure out what evidence we should be using for those decisions, it’s going to affect our health down the line.”

Bero conducts consumer workshops on evaluating the validity of research studies and says some of the tips are relevant when determining whether a health-related article online is scientifically sound. Even a two-sentence social media post, if it’s legitimate, should link to an original source, she said.

Below, Bero shares her top recommended questions to ask.

Where did the cited study take place and by whom?

First confirm the researchers and the organizations are even real. “I do work on trying to identify fraudulent research studies. Sometimes, they have authors that say they are affiliated with the University of Something, and then you look it up, and it’s not even a real university.”

What are they citing? Is it real and credible?

Basically, verify that they are citing a study from a scientific journal that people have heard of, not from some junk journal and not from some unknown blog. “You can tell pretty easily if it’s a real journal by just googling the title. If it has other papers; if it has an editorial board that has some sort of process it describes for reviewing their articles – that’s how we would tell whether it’s a real journal or a junk journal.”

Is the focus on the research itself, or is it on the researchers or the people?

“I’ve found that a lot of times when fraudulent studies are being talked about, they don’t actually say much about the study. They talk more about the authors of the study: and the author said this, and the author said that. But they don’t actually tell you what was done in the study, where the study was done, who the participants were, what the findings were – because there is no study.”

Are the claims too good to be true?

Bero used the hydroxychloroquine claims during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic: “A cheap drug with no side effects that cures COVID? First of all, there is absolutely no such thing as a drug with no side effects or that’s totally safe (let alone, one that cures COVID).”

Do they use broad statements around scientific consensus?

“They’ll say: the majority of scientists say, or scientific societies support, or the majority of people with this disease feel. That should be a tip-off.”

Is the piece solely critiquing a study?

“Those are very suspect. Usually, when the focus is solely a critique of a study rather than reporting on a study, its main objective is to discredit some sort of legitimate research. There’s usually no balance. There’s a lot of cherry picking of the comments to try to attack a legitimate study or scientist.”

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Lisa Bero, PhD