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Evaluating Health Information: Can This Information be Trusted?

Look for Peer-Reviewed and Evidence-Based Sources

Peer review is a quality-assurance check on research. Experts in that topic (who were not involved in the research project) read through research reports before they can be published. The reviewers' main job is to make sure that the research project's methods were properly done, and that the study's findings and conclusions are in line with good scientific practice. The reviewers don't have to agree with the study results - but they do have to approve its science before it can be published.

In checking health information, it's also important to know if it's evidence-based. See this page for explanations.

Trash it? Or Trust it?

Think of each set of questions below as giving a +1 (TRUST) or -1 (TRASH) rating for the information. After going through these questions, add up those numbers to get an overall trustworthiness score.

When was it written?

  • No date listed? vote to TRASH it.
  • Recent date? vote to TRUST it.
  • if it seems out of date based on what you see elsewhere or already know, consider TRASHing it.

Who wrote it?

  • If you don't know who wrote it, or can't find an author or sponsoring organization listed: vote to TRASH it.
  • If the author(s) are listed but don't work as a health professional: consider TRASHing it. (If the author is a journalist with a science background, consider TRUSTing it.)
  • If the author(s) are listed and have a medical research position: consider TRUSTing it.
  • If no author is listed but the sponsoring organization is well-known or well-respected and is a .edu, .org, or .gov website: consider TRUSTing it.

What is the source of the medical or scientific facts supporting this information?

  • No facts are given, but just personal experience or opinion: vote to TRASH it. (Personal experiences or opinions are not necessarily wrong, but they're not fact.)
  • Facts are from a scientific research study: consider TRUSTing it.
  • Several scientific studies are discussed, from different research projects or authors: vote to TRUST it.
  • If it rests solely on one study or one person's work: consider TRASHing it. (If that study or person has been discredited: vote to TRASH it.)

Who paid for it?

  • If the funding or sponsoring group is a government agency, NGO, or academic department : vote to TRUST it.
  • If the sponsoring organization is well-known and well-respected, and doesn't try to sell a product or point of view: vote to TRUST it.
  • If the information comes from a news source or the author is a journalist: LOOK for additional information before deciding. (Does it link to an original research study?)
  • If the author or sponsoring organization is trying to sell something or would make a profit from you believing in that information: vote to TRASH it.

Do other sources confirm this information?

  • If the information matches what you've found in other trustworthy sources (not by the same author!): vote to TRUST it.
  • If there are no other sources with the same information and it seems to be too good to be true: vote to TRASH it.

Source: Based on the Trust It or Trash It toolkit produced by the AccessTo Credible Genetics Resource Network cooperative, whose lead organization is the Genetic Alliance. Made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Think critically!

This link has another really useful set of questions to ask:

 

The Trust it? or Trash it? is also available as an interactive quiz online, to help you home your critical thinking skills:

 

And this advice was written especially for young people:

Preprints: what are they, can they be useful?

Preprints of scientific articles are exactly that - articles written in hopes of being published,  that either have not yet been accepted by a scholarly journal, or that have been accepted for publication but are still going through editorial and peer review. They are advance reports, that have not yet been analyzed by anyone except their authors (or possibly an editor or colleague).

These are a great place to look for new ideas, intriguing new research methods, or suggestions for further research.

With an unknown disease like COVID-19, it is tempting for journalists and other interested parties to explore websites that display preprints to look for the latest information. By itself, though, information in a preprint is not safe to base someone's medical treatment upon. Here is some advice for journalists on how to use information in preprints responsibly, also good advice to anyone looking for cutting-edge medical research.

About PlaneTree Health Library

PlaneTree Health Library's mission is to guide the public to trustworthy, accurate, and free health and medical information. In operation since 1989, it is a free, public, patient and consumer health library and  501(c)3 nonprofit organization. It does not take advertisements; recommendations are independent of any commercial relationship.

Visit our online information guides linked from our main website at: www.planetree-sv.org

The text on this page is copyright PlaneTree Health Library, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA. Linked contents are the responsibility of their creators / copyright holders.