Sorting Through Conflicting Information—Peer Review

Asking the right questions

For many health topics we read dueling headlines with contradictory advice, like “eat more fish” and “avoid eating fish.”  How can parents sort through this conflicting advice to decide which one to trust? One thing to look for is whether the advice is based upon work that has undergone a “peer review.”

Peer review is a process where scientists invite “peers” (that is, other experts in the same field) to evaluate the quality of the authors’ methods and research upon which their conclusions are based.  In addition, scientist’s methods, research, and conclusions can be published in a peer-reviewed journal.  This means that their work has been reviewed by experts that the journal editor has chosen, and that the reviewers agreed that the methods were appropriate and the work worthy of being published.  These reviews are often conducted anonymously so that the reviewers can be very honest in their appraisals.  Peer review is also widely used by government agencies and others to provide an outside independent evaluation of research and reports, thereby increasing confidence in the scientific soundness of the research and reports.

Scientific advice that has not undergone recent peer review should be considered cautiously because science is an on-going process.  Scientists continually question and test what is known and what can be known about our environment, human disease, and medical treatments.

 Scientific advice that has not undergone recent peer review should be considered cautiously because science is an on-going process.  Scientists continually question and test what is known and what can be known about our environment, human disease, and medical treatments. 

 New hypotheses are proposed and tested to expand the body of knowledge through research and experimentation. But as more research is done, new results may conflict with previous known facts and beliefs.  This is why expert peer review is so helpful to evaluate new information.

As a parent, you can investigate the quality of the advice.  For example, you can look at the source of the information, are the references cited for support from scientific journals or independent government reports that have been peer reviewed?  You can also look into whether the authors of a report have any conflicts of interest.  A scientist might have a conflict of interest in situations when, acceptance of his or her work would give him a financial gain, or some other benefit, and this situation might affect the objectivity of his or her opinions or actions.  Peer review by independent experts helps to mitigate these potential conflicts, and helps provide confidence that the information is not purposefully biased.

For more guidance in evaluating scientific and medical information, the U.S. National Library of Medicine has a website that provides links to many useful sites with advice and tools for evaluating health information -http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/webeval/webeval.html.
Wikipedia provides general information on different types of peer review, including how scientific journals conduct peer review, seehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peer_review
More information on independent peer review for toxicology and risk assessment can be found at the nonprofit group Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA):  http://www.tera.org/Peer/index.html.

Author:  
Jacqueline Patterson, M.En., Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment

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