Assessing contemporary science
Assessing contemporary science

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Assessing contemporary science

8.2 Applying PROMPT to an online article

You will now consider an online article on plastic pollution that is communicated via Wikipedia. It is worth noting that there have been many studies analysing the content of Wikipedia, which were reviewed recently by Mesgari et al. (2015), where mixed results were reported concerning the content, reliability and contributors.

For example, in a comparison with Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia was found to contain more factual errors, omissions or misleading statements in the science articles that were selected (Giles, 2005). In particular, health and medical articles were of concern, which is not surprising as some of the guidance for preparing Wikipedia articles discourages the use of information such as the dose of a drug.

Additionally, a study by Wilson and Likens (2015) showed that scientific articles were often volatile in their content when the subject was politically controversial, to the possible detriment of scientific accuracy. Consequently, it will be informative to use PROMPT to evaluate the article in question in this activity.

Activity 7 Using PROMPT to evaluate a Wikipedia article

Timing: Allow about 1 hour 15 minutes

Here you will apply what you have just learned about assessing scientific information to evaluate the ‘Plastic pollution’ entry in Wikipedia [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (2018). This article typically appears on a web search for ‘plastic’, ‘ocean’, ‘debris’ and ‘microplastic’, all terms you might use if you were looking for some introductory material on the topic of plastic pollution.

As this is quite a long article, if you have limited time available you can choose to only skim read the sections entitled ‘Policy’, ‘Institutional Arrangements in Canada’, ‘Collection’ and ‘Action for creating awareness’.

As you read the article, you should address the following aspects:

  • Apply PROMPT, and score the article out of 5 against each of the six criteria (where 1 = good and 5 = poor). You can write notes to justify the score you have given in the spaces available below, if you wish.
  • Identify any new terms and add them to a glossary list, if you wish to produce one.
  • Note any aspect that is mentioned as an ongoing area of research that particularly interests you.
  • Consider if any aspects are underdeveloped.

Table 2 Evaluation with PROMPT for ‘Plastic pollution’ entry in Wikipedia (2018)

PresentationIs the information as readable as it could be, given its age, condition and format? Is the information clearly laid out and easy to navigate? Is it obscured by busy designs, animations or images?
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RelevanceDoes the information you have found meet the need you have identified? Does it make sense in the particular context in which you are working?
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ObjectivityDoes the author or owner of the information make clear their own position, and/or alternative views? Who funded the research, where was it conducted, and consequently, is there any potential for bias in the interpretation? Is it published in a peer-reviewed journal? Are the findings evidenced by reliable references?
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MethodIs it clear how the research was carried out? Were the methods appropriate? Does it permit the author to come to a sound and reasonable conclusion?
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Provenance

Can the author or source of the information be considered a reliable authority on the subject? To address this, consider things like:

  • Do they have several publications in this area?
  • What is their position: are they an academic in a university or a research institute, or a citizen scientist?
  • Has the information been peer reviewed by appropriate individuals?
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TimelinessWhen was the information produced? Is it recent, dated or obsolete? Does the age of the information matter on this occasion?
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Words: 0
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

When you have finished reviewing the article, reveal the discussion below to see the results from a ranking in July 2018.

Discussion

The scores that you gave to the article based on each PROMPT principle will depend on your own impression of the information presented. This is a necessarily subjective exercise in which it is up to you to determine how reliable you think the report is.

However, for reference, the table below shows some reflections on each aspect, including where we felt some ideas require further development. You are not expected to have gone into as much detail as is shown below, but it is provided to show how the framework can be put to use. Note, also, that the article may have been developed further since this evaluation in 2018.

Table 3 Evaluation with PROMPT for Plastic Pollution entry in Wikipedia (evaluated on 09/07/18)

PresentationIs the information as readable as it could be, given its age, condition and format? Is the information clearly laid out and easy to navigate? Is it obscured by busy designs, animations or images?

In July 2018, this article was the subject of several discussions over how it could be improved.

Many of the sections are quite readable, whereas others, such as ‘Institutional Arrangements in Canada’, are harder to read. The figures are illustrative and useful.

There are some contradictions, e.g. the term ‘nurdle’ is used in several different contexts – the first one ‘Microdebris is more commonly referred to as nurdles’ is a narrow definition and so is technically incorrect, as according to the Oxford Dictionaries website (2018) a nurdle is ‘a very small pellet of plastic which serves as raw material in the manufacture of plastic products’.

Score = 2

RelevanceDoes the information you have found meet the need you have identified? Does it make sense in the particular context in which you are working?

Some of the information is very general, whereas other sections are very focused on a specific geographical location.

Score = 2

ObjectivityDoes the author or owner of the information make clear their own position, and/or alternative views? Who funded the research, where was it conducted, and consequently, is there any potential for bias in the interpretation? Is it published in a peer-reviewed journal? Are the findings evidenced by reliable references?

This is not a very balanced article because the importance and benefits of plastics to society are not discussed. Similarly, efforts to tackle plastic pollution receive only limited discussion. For example, the article states that when bioplastics are broken down, methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) is released. However, it fails to balance this with the fact that when most naturally-occurring materials break down, they too will release methane.

The section entitled ‘Effects on humans’ fails to mention the great many benefits that the use of plastics brings in a multitude of applications to human health. Likewise, it discusses health effects but fails to identify an appropriate pathway for plastic pollution to contribute to this. It is unlikely that exposure through the ‘nose, mouth or skin’ is realistic for additives in plastic pollution, and in reality it is more likely that the exposure of humans to bisphenol A (BPA) from plastics comes from food packaging, not plastic pollution.

Likewise, little coverage is given to schemes to tackle the problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, such as beach clean-up or ocean clean-up programmes.

Score = 4

MethodIs it clear how the research was carried out? Were the methods appropriate? Does it permit the author to come to a sound and reasonable conclusion?

As Wikipedia is generally editable by anyone with internet access, it is not clear what efforts contributors took to research their entries to ensure that they were balanced and free from bias.

Score = 4

Provenance

Can the author or source of the information be considered a reliable authority on the subject? To address this, consider things like:

  • Do they have several publications in this area?
  • What is their position: are they an academic in a university or a research institute, or a citizen scientist?
  • Has the information been peer reviewed by appropriate individuals?

Most of the data is referenced; however, the reliability of some of this data is debatable – there are several articles that are news items, which will already be susceptible to a journalist interpreting the work of others. For example, the following statement is not supported by the associated reference (Fernandez et al., 1999), which has a different focus and does not even mention immune disorders or birth defects.

‘Plankton, fish, and ultimately the human race, through the food chain, ingest these highly toxic carcinogens and chemicals. Consuming the fish that contain these toxins can cause an increase in cancer, immune disorders, and birth defects.’

Indeed, the ‘Abstract’ section in Fernandez et al. (1999) points at an inverse relationship between the ingestion of fish and some cancers, stating that they found ‘a consistent pattern of protection against the risk of digestive tract cancers with fish consumption’.

Furthermore, the section entitled ‘Oceans’ talks about additives in plastics as ‘toxic chemicals’. However, if we take BPA as an example, its acute toxicology (i.e. its effects over short periods) is classified in the lowest category, 5, because its median lethal dose (LD50, rat, oral) is 3.25 g/kg. This means it has similar acute toxicity to common salt (sodium chloride, LD50 (rat, oral) = 3 g/kg), which we consume in much higher levels.

Note it is BPA’s chronic toxicology (i.e. its long-term effects) that is of more concern, as it is a potential endocrine disruptor. This means that it is a substance that can interfere with the body’s hormone system above certain doses. So, it would be better for the article to be clearer about the type of toxicity being referred to, in order to help prevent any concern from the public.

Score = 4

TimelinessWhen was the information produced? Is it recent, dated or obsolete? Does the age of the information matter on this occasion?

The timeliness is potentially good as it can be edited regularly; however, some of the references are now quite old, with some dating from 1973, 1997 and 1999.

Furthermore, older references have not been updated so, to give an example, the section on the ‘Decomposition of plastics’ is confusing as it states in one sentence that polymer degradation takes longer than expected in the sea, and in the next that plastics in the ocean degrade quicker than expected. In reality, the scientific problem here is complicated; the term ‘plastics’ covers a wide range of compounds that will display differing degradation rates in the ocean, but they are not differentiated between in the Wikipedia article.

Score = 3

The total PROMPT score given to the article is 19, based on the individual scores for each criterion. It is somewhat difficult to put this score into context, other than to say that if an excellent article merits a score of 6 (i.e. 1 points × 6 criteria) and a completely unreliable one scores 30 (5 points × 6 criteria), then this Wikipedia report tends slightly towards the higher end of the scale, on the basis of our analysis.

Because of the way that content is produced for Wikipedia, it is likely that this score will alter with time, as the article receives further updates. However, the salient message is that any use of Wikipedia in your studies should be undertaken with a high degree of caution.

As stated in the discussion for the activity above, it can be difficult to assess the relative reliability of a given article if you do not have anything else to compare it to. If you are interested in this idea, you might like to complete the following optional activity, which will also allow you to further practise the skills required to perform a PROMPT analysis.

Optional activity: Comparing the relative reliability of articles

Timing: Allow about 1 hour 15 minutes

If you would like to try another PROMPT analysis, then study and evaluate John Smith’s chapter on ‘Plastic debris in the ocean’ in the United Nations Environment Programme Yearbook 2014 (UNEP, 2014, pp. 48–53), and compare this with the score that you gave the Wikipedia article you have just read.

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