Finding the Paper Behind the News Story: Two New Tools

Skeptic bloggers have always had a a love-hate relationship with science journalism, as Steve Novella mentioned on his blog last week. On one hand, they keep us in business by making mistakes that we can blog about. But on the other hand those mistakes also damage the public perception of science.

One small aspect of this is the common failure to link to sources online. The bread and butter of science reporting is an article about the results in a new scientific paper. And yet many of these articles will never mention the title of the paper, much less hyperlink to where it could be found online. This leaves skeptical readers at a loss to dig further on the topic.

Ben Goldacre has long hammered on this issue, and even badgered BBC to change their linking policy for quite some time.  Late in 2010 he succeeded in getting BBC to change their policy and to link to sources. But the BBC hasn’t been consistent about applying this policy since, and of course they are only one website.

Two new services emerged this week to attack this particular issue. Read on for more details.

You would think that in this modern age, linking to sources would be a no-brainer.  And yet newspapers continue to fail to do so.  Ben Goldacre documented the continuing failures to do so last year. He speculated “perhaps it’s too embarrassing for some writers to risk linking to primary sources that readers can check for themselves.”

Of course there are many good reasons to link to sources other than letting your readers fact check you.  In fact, a recent court case indicates that linking to sources can help if you get sued for defamation, by allowing readers to check the facts for themselves.

But journalists still fail to do it, so what’s a skeptic to do?  Well, two new efforts to attack this problem emerged this month.  One is simply a Twitter feed, the other has an entire site and software behind it.
 

The Papers Behind

One effort seems to just be a Twitter feed called @ThePapersBehind. I think the idea is they will tweet a news story with a link to the corresponding paper, and you can tweet requests at them.  

Here is a sample tweet:

Simple and effective. It’s not clear to me who is running this account and whether they will be able to keep up with the load. But they seem game to try.

 

Unsourced

The other effort launched this month is called Unsourced.org and is backed by the Media Standards Trust (the same UK non-profit organization that backed churnalism.com).

This is a website where you can log in and participate in identifying the sources or flagging articles that have other issues. Excerpts of articles are featured on the site, and you can identify the source and attach it to the article, or simply flag it for issues similar to the ones in the journalism warning stickers designed by Tom Scott.

You can create an account there, or you can log in using your Twitter or Google account, which is handy. (No need to create yet another password). Once logged in, you can add annotations to articles yourself, or browse around to find articles you’ve already read and see what others think of them.

And to top it all off, they’ve built a browser extension for Chrome that lets you see the warnings and hyperlink to the sources directly. This is very similar to RBUTR browser extension, also designed to be used while reading. RBUTR links to rebuttals, Unsourced links to sources – both are useful for skeptics or others reading online.

Unsourced is just starting out, but they have a blog and a Twitter feed.

I encourage skeptics to participate in finding sources for and critiquing news articles using these tools. Unsourced in particular seems to be an excellent new outlet for crowdsourcing efforts by skeptics who have some time and the ability to find scientific papers on the web.

Thanks to @mootcycle for the tip!

Updated: not libel, defamation. Credit for tip.

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About Tim Farley
Focused on online misinformation, Tim Farley is a software engineer, computer security expert and scientific skeptic who created the site What's The Harm. He is a Past Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

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