A Dutch librarian asked me to join a blog carnival of Dutch Librarians. This carnival differs from medical blog carnivals (like the Grand Rounds and “Medical Information Matters“) in its approach. There is one specific topic which is discussed at individual blogs and summarized by the host in his carnival post.
The current topic is “Can you use an internet source”?
The motive of the archivist Christian van der Ven for starting this discussion was the response to a post at his blog De Digitale Archivaris. In this post he wondered whether blog posts could be used by students writing a paper. It struck him that students rarely use internet sources and that most teachers didn’t encourage or allow to use these.
Since I work as a medical information specialist I will adapt the question as follows:
“Can you refer to an internet source in a biomedical scientific article, paper, thesis or survey”?
I explicitly use “refer to” instead of “use”. Because I would prefer to avoid discussing “plagiarism” and “copyright”. Obviously I would object to any form of uncritical copying of a large piece of text without checking it’s reliability and copyright-issues (see below).“]
Previously, I have blogged about the trouble with Wikipedia as a source for information. In short, as Wikipedians say, Wikipedia is the best source to start with in your research, but should never be the last one (quote from @berci in a twitterinterview). In reality, most students and doctors do consult Wikipedia and dr. Google (see here and here). However, they may not (and mostly should not) use it as such in their writings. As I have indicated in the earlier post it is not (yet) a trustworthy source for scientific purposes.
But Internet is more than Wikipedia and random Googling. As a matter of fact most biomedical information is now in digital form. The speed at which biomedical knowledge is advancing is tremendous. Books are soon out of date. Thus most library users confine themselves to articles in peer-reviewed scientific papers or to datasets (geneticists). Generally my patrons search the largest freely available database PubMed to access citations in mostly peer-reviewed -and digital- journals. These are generally considered as (reliable) internet sources. But they do not essentially differ from printed equivalents.
However there are other internet sources that provide reliable or useful information. What about publications by the National Health Council, an evidence based guideline by NICE and/or published evidence tables? What about synopses (critical appraisals) such as published by DARE, like this one? What about evidence summaries by Clinical Evidence like, this one? All excellent, evidence based, commendable online resources. Without doubt these can be used as a reference in a paper. Thus there is no clearcut answer to the abovementioned question. Whether an internet source should be used as a reference in a paper is dependent on the following:
- Is the source relevant?
- Is the source reliable?
- What is the purpose of the paper and the topic?
Furthermore it depends on the function of the reference (not mutually exclusive):
- To give credit
- To add credibility
- For transparency and reproducibility
- To help readers find further information
- For illustration (as an example)
Lets illustrate this with a few examples.
- Students who write an overview on a medical topic can use any relevant reference, including narrative reviews, UpToDate and other internet sites if appropriate .
- Interns who have to prepare a CAT (critically appraised topic) should refer to 2-3 papers, providing the highest evidence (i.e. a systematic review and/or randomized controlled trial).
- Authors writing systematic reviews only include high quality primary studies (except for the introduction perhaps). In addition they should (ideally) check congress abstracts, clinical trial registers (like clinicaltrials.gov), or actual raw data (i.e. produced by a pharmaceutical company).
- Authors of narrative reviews may include all kinds of sources. That is also true for editorials, primary studies or theses. Reference lists should be as accurate and complete as possible (within the limits posed by for instance the journal).
Blog, wikis, podcasts and tweets.
Papers can also refer to blog posts, wikis or even tweets (there is APA guidance how to cite these). Such sources can merely be referred to because they serve as an example (articles about social media in Medicine for instance, like this recent paper in Am Pharm Assoc that analyzes pharmacy-centric blogs.
Blog posts are usually seen as lacking in factual reliability. However, there are many blogs, run by scientists, that are (or can be) a trustworthy source. As a matter of fact it would be inappropriate not to cite these sources, if the information was valuable, useful and actually used in the paper.
Some examples of excellent biomedical web 2.0 sources.
- The Clinical Cases and Images Blog of Ves Dimov, MD (drVes at Twitter), a rich source of clinical cases. My colleague once found the only valuable information (a rare patient case) at Dr Ves’ blog, not in PubMed or other regular sources. Why not cite this blog post, if this patient case was to be published?
- Researchblogging.org is an aggregator of expert blogposts about peer-reviewed research. There are many other high quality scientific blogging platforms like Scientopia, the PLOSblogs etc. These kind of blogs critically analyse peer reviewed papers. For instance this blog post by Marya Zilberberg reveals how a RCT stopped early due to efficacy can still be severely flawed, but lead to a level one recommendation. Very useful information that you cannot find in the actual published study nor in the evidence based guideline
- An example of an excellent and up-to-date wiki is the open HLWIKI (maintained by Dean Giustini, @giustini at Twitter) with entries about health librarianship, social media and current information technology topics, having over 565+ pages of content since 2006! It has a very rich content with extensive reference lists and could thus be easily used in papers on library topics.
- Another concept is usefulchem.wikispaces.com (an initiative of Jean Claude Bradley, discussed in a previous post. This is not only a wiki but also an open notebook, where actual primary scientific data can be found. Very impressive.
- There is also WikiProteins (part of a conceptwiki), an open, collaborative wiki focusing on proteins and their role in biology and medicine.
I would like to end my post with two thoughts.
First the world is not static. In the future scientific claims could be represented as formal RDF statements/triplets instead of or next to the journal publications as we know them (see post on nanopublications). Such “statements” (already realized with regard to proteins and genes) are more easily linked and retrieved. In effect, peer review doesn’t prevent fraud, misrepresentation or overstatements.
Another side of the coin in this “blogs as an internet source”-dicussion is whether the citation is always appropriate and/or accurate?
Today a web page (cardio.nl/ACS/StudiesRichtlijnenProtocollen.html), evidently meant for education of residents, linked to one of my posts. Almost the entire post was copied including a figure, but the only link used was one of my tags EBM (hidden in the text). Even worse, blog posts are sometimes mentioned to give credit to disputable context. I’ve mentioned the tactics of Organized Wisdom before. More recently a site called deathbyvaccination.com links out of context to one of my blog post. Given the recent revelation of fraudulent anti-vaccine papers, I’m not very happy with that kind of “attribution”.
- What is the Difference Between a Citation and a Reference? (drdianehamilton.wordpress.com)
- Duke University Citing Sources (library.duke.edu)
- Don’t Look Back – Do Scientists Squelch Citations to Justify Claims of Novelty? (scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org)
- Cite Right in 2011: How to credit your social media sources (socialmediaclub.org)
- I Don’t Have Time To Create Content (customerthink.com)
- Medical Information Matters 2.10 is up at The Search Principle Blog (laikaspoetnik.wordpress.com)
- MedBlogs Grand Rounds 7:21 HERE next week (gruntdoc.com)
- Medical Information Matters: Call for Submissions (laikaspoetnik.wordpress.com)
- Will nano publications & triplets replace the classic journal articles? (laikaspoetnik.wordpress.com)
- Current Carnivals in Nature and Science [Greg Laden's Blog] (scienceblogs.com)