Misinformation is on the rise—in fact, according to a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, “Misinformation has reached crisis proportions. It poses a risk to international peace, interferes with democratic decision making, endangers the well-being of the planet, and threatens public health.”
At NISO, we believe that information standards can help. When widely adopted and implemented, clear, community-agreed guidelines for best practices streamline processes, minimize the risk of error or failure, and ultimately build trust in information. It’s not surprising, then, that the topic of trust came up again and again at NISO Plus 2021, our second annual conference, held virtually in February. There were sessions on the importance of ensuring that information standards are diverse, equitable, and inclusive, on best practices for providing access to information, on addressing bias in artificial intelligence and metadata, and on the reliability of preprints. There were also two sessions that specifically addressed misinformation—a panel on Misinformation and Truth: From Fake News to Retractions to Preprints, and the closing keynote, by Zeynep Tufekci, What Does the Pandemic Teach Us about Trust, Reliability, and Information?
So, what are some of the specific ways that information standards can help address misinformation? One of the goals of NISO Plus—and something that distinguishes it from most other conferences—is our focus on concrete outcomes. Many sessions are split almost equally between presentations and discussion, with the aim of identifying concrete next steps that NISO and/or other community organizations can take forward. The panel on misinformation provides a nice example of this. It covered three broad themes: the role of open access in fighting fake news, a cross-industry discussion of retractions, and supporting sound and open science standards for preprints.
Sylvain Massip of Opscidia introduced their prototype scientific fact checker, which has three goals: to demonstrate that open-access scientific articles can help people make sense of different claims, to educate people about the huge number of scientific studies available, and to help them identify the scientific consensus (or lack thereof).
Michele Avissar-Whiting of Research Square shared a tale of three preprints—the “misunderstood,” the “overinterpreted,” and the “convenient truth.” She made a strong argument for the value of preprints in allowing science to be “preprinted and quickly discredited,” rather than to be “published in a well-respected journal and sow decades of fear and concern around an important public health effort.”
Jodi Schneider, of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, told us about the cross-industry project she is leading to reduce the inadvertent spread of retracted science. She was joined by project participants Caitlin Bakker at the University of Minnesota, Hannah Heckner from Silverchair, and Randy Townsend with the American Geophysical Union, who represented views from the library, vendor, and publisher communities, respectively. The project team’s recommendations include:
- Making retraction information easy to find and use
- Recommending retraction metadata and a taxonomy of retraction statuses that can be adopted by stakeholders
- Developing best practices for coordinating the retraction process; educating and socializing researchers and the public about retraction and post-publication stewardship of the scientific record
- Developing standard software and databases to support sustainable data quality
Their presentations led to a vigorous discussion, which has continued after the conference. There was so much interest in this topic that a group of attendees, including the speakers, are now working with NISO staff on a proposal for a new standard on publisher handling of retractions—exactly the kind of concrete outcome we were hoping would arise from NISO Plus!
Another area we plan to follow up on as a direct result of the conference is diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. This is already an increasingly important aspect of our work—we now have a DEI policy and a newly-formed DEI Committee—because it’s critical to building trust in our organization and our work. There are numerous examples of how inequities and exclusion lead to a lack of trust, such as the widespread distrust in science by many Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (see this recent survey on vaccine hesitancy, for example). We therefore have a shared responsibility to ensure that our standards incorporate the requirements of the whole information community, that everyone has a voice in developing them, and that they are easily accessible to all.
As a first step towards this, our DEI Committee is organizing a virtual workshop—to be held twice, in order to cover a range of time zones—focused on identifying and prioritizing concrete actions that NISO can take to support and increase diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the information community. Some of the topics that were raised at NISO Plus, which will likely be covered in the workshops, include accessibility of information, bias (for example, in artificial intelligence and search, and in cataloguing and vocabularies), the digital divide, metadata for Indigenous knowledge and other non-traditional outputs, and collecting demographic data. There’s a lot of work to do, but we hope that the workshops will be a good starting point and will help NISO focus on the areas of our work where there’s most need in terms of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.
There’s much more I could write about, and I encourage you to check out the NISO Plus repository, where you’ll find many of the slide decks that were presented at the conference. But I can’t end without drawing your attention to Dr Tufekci’s keynote, which directly addressed the issue of trust in and reliability of information, specifically as related to the pandemic.
Dr Tufekci sees “tribalism”—both right-wing and liberal—as key in spreading misinformation. One of the examples she used was the debate about whether masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Although it may seem hard to believe now, Dr. Tufekci reminded us that there was a time shortly after the start of the pandemic when a number of public health officials, policy-makers, and journalists claimed that mask wearing could actually increase the risk of getting infected. Yet, within a short period of time, that information was reversed and you were “a covidiot to not wear masks or not want to wear masks.” As she pointed out, “There wasn't some new big evidence that flipped the switch. It was more like a sociological flip.”
Dr. Tufekci consciously focused on misinformation among more liberal, better educated people because, as she said, [we] “tend to think that we are immune to social dynamics that fuel misinformation and that go against us being able to have a healthy information environment’ when, in fact, you see the same thing across the whole political spectrum.” Indeed, a new study finds that, of the 90% of Americans who believe they are better able to spot fake news than others, fully three quarters significantly overestimate their abilities. While Dr. Tufekci had more questions than answers, she certainly gave us a lot of food for thought!
As we start planning NISO Plus 2022 (February 15-17 — save the date!), trust in information is sure to continue to be a major theme. In the meantime, we’ll be sharing regular updates on the outcomes and outputs from NISO Plus 2021, and I warmly invite you to sign up for more information.