Over 90 Percent of Articles Reporting Research Findings Are Total Nonsense

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Research shows that almost all reported research findings come off the top of people’s heads.


Image by memyselfaneye from Pixabay

Did I get your attention with the surprising statistic that I used in the title? Would you be more or less surprised to learn that I came up with the number off the top of my head.

Now to clarify, that doesn’t mean that I intentionally made the number up in an attempt to scam you or that I was consciously intending to sucker you in with a click bait title. Given what I’ve seen on the internet with regard to articles in the popular press that report the outcomes of scientific research, I’m not entirely convinced I’m that far off. At the same time, given that I’m a bit miffed at spending all day trying to write three different pieces based on numerous reports of “research findings” only to find out these were just people repeating an impression that had no basis in fact or science, I may be negatively biased.

What’s the main problem? The lack of source citations.

What’s the Big Deal With Not Citing Sources?

“Yeah, we know,” I hear some of you saying. “We really should cite our sources, old news. Seriously, if we sometimes don’t, it’s not exactly up there with the effects of the Coronavirus.” Okay, I admit, that it’s not up to thatlevel of seriousness, but the trend of leaving off sources from articles, can have some significant ramifications.

When we use information because it’s in line with our opinions, or provides some great ideas for posts we hope will go viral without checking the source, we may be using information that’s inaccurate. This means that our opinions aren’t based on the foundation we believe them to be and the answers, solutions or advice we may be offering won’t be helpful and could possibly be quite the opposite.

And ultimately when the tendency is to not check the veracity of the information you are using to make your point, over the long term, the amount of inaccurate information included across . numerous articles will build up leading to commonplace misperceptions and incorrect information. Since we frequently use the content on the internet to provide us with ideas to improve our lives, this could cut into our quality of life.

I admit that I have gotten lax in recent months in terms of including citations for my own sources, and know I have several articles that include statements that begin, “Research shows that. . .” or something similar but don’t then include an in text citation with a resource section or bibliography at the end.

This has mostly just been laziness on my part. When I put together an article that I use research as the basis of, I tend to read a lot of different articles. I will write a brief phrase to keep the information straight if I’m going to include a piece of factual information from an article while if I’m just using the most general findings I won’t.

For example, if I’m writing an article on the effects of alcohol on health, and I just intend to include the information that modest alcohol consumption has been associated with a reduced risk of dementia, I won’t write a note about this. If I want the information to be a touch more detailed I might record the following:

1–2 drinks a day associated with lower risk of overall dementia; More than that as well as total abstinence associated with higher risk of overall dementia.

In either case, I would need to provide the source of this information (as I have done with a hyperlink). Sometimes I read articles because of my own curiosity and only later decide to include something I have read in a post. This means I would have to go back and search for the original source which even if I find it right off the bat, takes time.

Admittedly, there have been occasions when I included information that should have had a source cited but didn’t feel like taking the extra time to find the reference, perhaps due to wanting to publish something earlier in the day, or because when I looked for it I couldn’t locate it again right away. However, neither of these excuses were acceptable reasons for not citing my sources.

Why It’s Important to Cite Sources

Now that there are so many people who write on the internet the trend to leave out citations is creating a major problem. When we take anything we find and present it as if it reliable, factual information but it’s not, we end up with a large body of information that people come to believe is accurate, despite being established on nothing more than opinion. Sometimes, the opinion itself may even be cited or linked to as if it’s fact.

I came across an example of this when working on an article about how success is related to depression. When putting together the intro, I wanted to include statistics regarding rates of depression in different groups of successful individuals.

The statistic I came across time and time again, suggested that research had demonstrated that CEOs may be depressed at a rate that was more than double that of the general population. Yet almost none of the articles in the popular press gave a source for this assertion.

The one exception I found linked the statement to the abstract of an article that didn’t include the information it was supposedly a source for. I kept seeing the name Burguires and the year 2008as part of the reference, though when I searched Google Scholar, I couldn’t come up with the reference. I did a general search on scholar to find any reference for the statistic, and came up empty.

Then I finally found an article that linked the statement to the source (Burguieres, 2008). I’ve included it here as a hyperlink despite recommending that you don’t use it since it's not a reliable source. I've only included it so it can be used to better understand the point I made above.

It turned out that Burguires was a depressed, former CEO who had given his general impression that lots of CEO’s were depressed. Definitely not a reliable reference, as it was based on nothing more than one man’s opinion. Without the ability to look at the actual source and realize that it wasn’t factual or reliable, the statistic cited repeatedly story after story had become established in the popular press as fact.

Given how often sources are left out of posts, there is already likely a large amount of misinformation in the popular press which will only grow if the trend continues. Over time, people may come to rely on this misinformation and use it as the basis of decision making or behavior change when there’s no real basis for doing so. It’s possible that in some cases harmful outcomes may result as a function of people following bad advice.

This is why there is a need for us to become more responsible about citing references in our own work, and encouraging others to do so as well. It will help cut down on people using misinformation as a factual basis for what they write and the advice that they give.

Best Practices for Using Research Findings and Citing the Sources

  1. The bottom line is that we all need to make sure that if we are claiming that there is research that says something then there actually is, we understand what the research indicates and that we properly cite the source for it.
  2. To include research findings in your work as support for what you’re writing, you first need to make sure you understand what acceptable sources are for the type of article you are creating. If you are citing an opinion that many people have, make sure this is clear. If you are suggesting that what you’ve reported is based on scientific research, then you need to understand how to evaluate scientific sources and what peer reviewed articles are. Just because you find a source through a search engine like Google Scholar does not mean that everything that comes up in your results are reliable, accurate sources.
  3. Do not include information from or cite a source you have never looked at. If you haven’t read the original report yourself then don’t try to make it appear as if you have.
  4. If you do not have the ability to understand the original research report, then don’t include it in your article. For most blog posts, it’s not mandatory to include original research for example in support of a formal thesis statement. If you want to write on topics that you need to be able to understand research findings and statistical outcomes to write about, you need to gain the education necessary to fully understand them.
  5. Don’t use what you read in the popular press or a quick and dirty summary of a research article or even the abstract of a legitimate article if you don’t have access to the rest of it. Without reading and understanding the original research report yourself, you won’t know if the information is accurate.
  6. Don’t assume that just because you see the same statistic in numerous articles that it means that it’s accurate or interpreted properly. A hundred people can just as easily decide to use a popular article that incorrectly reports findings as a single person.
  7. Make sure you know what the proper format is for the type of article you are writing, the current trends and the conventions of the site you are writing for as to how to cite the article.
  8. Don’t just give a url, as these are (usually) impermanent and often urls lead to sites that restrict users to those with a paid membership. The best practice is to include standard bibliographic information, a relatively stable hypertext link for current readers and the DOI.
  9. It’s not enough to just provide a list of the sources you used at the end without also including an in text citation so that readers can match specific statements to their actual source. Remember that the purpose of citing your sources is not to establish your own authority but to provide readers with the ability to read the original source themselves and evaluate how it relates to what you have said in your post.

Take Away

A good rule of thumb to follow when considering whether to include research findings in your post is not to include information from research if you haven’t read the actual, original report yourself or if you don’t have the ability to understand it even if you did. Never refer to research findings based only on what you see others say about the study in work that is not the original research report.

If you see information that you want to include in your own posts, you need to read the original report and make sure you understand the findings. Properly citing your sources will allow all readers to arrive at the same conclusion you did or perhaps generate user responses and other types of engagement, as well as enhance your overall engagement, while ensuring that your content is reliable.

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Chicago, IL

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