UT professors warn against reporting on baseless research

Chase Karacostas

As academic institutions become more impatient to announce the next “discovery,” UT professors warn journalists against reporting on non-peer-reviewed or oversold research. 

Earlier this month, associate art history professor Stephennie Mulder saw a news headline about the word “Allah” being found on Viking funeral clothes. An expert in Islamic art, Mulder, who intially fell prey to believing the discovery, said she was excited by the article.

Hours later, Mulder said she began taking a closer look at the original academic article written by Swedish scholar Annika Larsson. As she dug deeper, she said, there were a number of things about the discovery that did not add up, and Mulder quickly realized the word “Allah” was not actually on the cloth. The most prominent red flag was the style of calligraphy used on the 10th-century cloth in question. The calligraphic style depicted was not developed until more than 500 years later. 

“There’s no way it could be there in the 10th century unless this is the only known example in the world, which seems a bit unlikely,” Mulder said.

Mulder called other Islamic art experts and experts in old textiles, an area in which she lacked a deeper knowledge. Once she had everything she needed, she wrote a 60-tweet-long critique on Oct. 16 that became a public and accidental peer review of Larsson’s article.

The thread has now received over 3,000 retweets and sparked calls to Mulder from multiple news outlets, including National Geographic and the Atlantic, which had reported on the discovery.

“It’s overwhelming,” Mulder said. “Repeating the argument again and again. I think it’s so important for scholars to be able to explain what they do to nonspecialists.”

Mulder’s colleague, art history professor David Stuart, said it’s disappointing that stories like this go viral while much more interesting, vetted discoveries are ignored.

“What (does) get attention sometimes are stories that just catch one’s imagination, but that doesn’t mean that they’re true,” Stuart said.

Stuart also said there is a growing issue in academia where institutions will send out press releases to announce discoveries even before they have gone through the rigorous peer review system. The immediate nature of modern media has affected the care that researchers are supposed to take before publishing their findings as facts, Stuart said.

Mulder recommends journalists call additional experts in the field and have them glance over the findings in order to add another layer of verification.

“I want journalists to talk to experts,” Mulder said. “But you can’t just talk to one because everything is complex … and one scholar could simply — as I think is the case with this situation — be completely wrong.”

Journalism professor Robert Jensen said even peer reviewed articles can sometimes oversell their results as more conclusive than they really are by either the publishing author or the institution. 

Most of these issues boil down to money, Jensen said. Institutions and researchers always want more donors, so they over-promote research to prove that they are the “best.”

“If we lived in a sane society, this obsession with being first and being dramatically first wouldn’t really matter was much,” Jensen said.

Ultimately, Jensen said many of these so-called “discoveries” will still receive publicity, because reporters simply cannot be experts in every single field of knowledge. Jensen said continued coverage will, however, expose falsity or other wrongs in the end.