Andy Jackson, ND, and Miki Scheidel reviewed and provided input on this post.
We have found some common guidelines that help us determine whether studies and websites can be trusted. We share what we find valuable in a series of blog posts.
So many websites each claim to provide “the truth” or the best information about cancer care. But they might make radically different claims from each other, so they can’t all be right. How can you tell the sites that show evidence to back up their claims from those that are less transparent about their information sources?
A tool for evaluating websites
A study by researchers in the Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Cancer Institute published a study evaluating 11 websites with information about complementary medicine in cancer care.1Sansevere ME, White JD. Quality assessment of online complementary and alternative medicine information resources relevant to cancer. Integrative Cancer Therapies. 2021 Jan-Dec;20:15347354211066081. They used a modified version of a tool—DISCERN—to evaluate each website and score it using key characteristics.
Key characteristics for online health information resources
|Aims and relevance||Why was this site created?|
|Sources of information||Does the site provide references, website hyperlinks, in text citations?|
|Writing, editing, reviewing process||Is the process transparent?|
|Authors/editors qualifications||Who created and updated the information and what are their credentials/qualifications?|
|Up-to-date publications||Is the information up to date, is the last updated date provided?|
|Additional sources of support||Are additional outside sources of support and information resources provided?|
|Shared decision making and complementarity||Do they recommend consulting a healthcare professional and advise shared decision making?|
|Privacy and advertising policies||Are privacy, advertisement, financial disclosure policies stated? What do they do with your information?|
We think this framework is a good tool for evaluating websites and recommend you ask some or all of these questions when you come across a site that interests you.
The study using this tool rated our pilot site Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies (BCCT) very highly—the highest of the 11 websites reviewed.
Red flags in claims about cancer therapies
On the other hand, a few “red flags” cause us to question the value and validity of some sites. Sites with these characteristics, and especially more than one of these, should be treated with a great deal of caution. We recommend validating any information from these sites through more transparent or authoritative sources.
Authors or sponsors are not identified or qualified
The qualifications of authors should be described. Formal education and training, experience, and independent investigation are all valid qualifications. These should be made available to the reader. Any conflicts of interest, whether financial or organizational, should be listed for authors.
Example: The president of a company that sells supplements has authored an article claiming those supplements will make you live longer, run faster, and jump higher. That is a red flag, particularly if that conflict of interest was not overtly stated somewhere easily noticeable on the same page as the article. Those claims would require further research for verification because the author serves to profit from those claims.
- Are all authors identified along with their credentials?
- Do the authors have education, training, and experience that qualifies them to speak on this topic? If not, has the information been reviewed by someone who is qualified?
- Do the authors serve to profit or somehow gain personally from your belief in the claims made in the article?
Claims are not transparent
Any claims of effectiveness should provide evidence that is accessible to the reader. Studies from peer-reviewed journals, reports from professional organizations or reputable academic or governmental agencies are generally credible, while sensational “studies” from organizations manufacturing or selling a product are suspect.
- Is this site or person excessively critical of approaches different from theirs?
- Does this site push their therapy to the exclusion of others?
- Does this site or person deny any flaw or weakness in their therapy?
- Does this site or person claim that their therapy can cure cancer?
Evidence is weak or missing
Claims without supporting evidence, or only weak evidence, are always suspect. See Understanding Research Evidence› for more about the strength of evidence.
- Does this person or site make only vague statements about effectiveness without any evidence?
- Is the only source of evidence testimonials from users?
- Are only unnamed studies purporting to prove a therapy is effective, without references or details?
- Are any studies cited published in “pay to publish” journals, which will publish anything from authors, regardless of its scientific merit?
- Does this person or site dismiss those who criticize their product or service without any evidence to refute criticisms?
- Is the Information missing a date?
Websites or people who are trying to sell something have an incentive to make their product look the best that it can. Even when sales people have honorable intentions, benefits can be unconsciously promoted and potential harm downplayed. However, just because a website sells products doesn’t mean their information isn’t valid. We recommend that you check the information on a site against other highly credible sources, which we describe below.
Financial ties operate in critical reviews, also. If an expert is critical of a treatment, consider whether that treatment competes with another treatment that the expert is tied to financially in some way. For example, a scientist from a pharmaceutical company may criticize the claim that a complementary therapy such as a supplement can relieve pain in place of a pain medication. Again, check the information against other highly credible sources.
For websites or experts that aren’t selling products or services, check to see if they are transparent about their funding. Does the site tell you who sponsors or supports the site and information?
Further, some sites are selling completely bogus therapies that have no track record or evidence of benefit.
- Is this person or website encouraging you to buy something?
- Do you need to purchase the product or service to get full information?
- Does this site or person claim to have connections to God or spiritual forces that you must pay to access?
- Are a website’s or product’s sponsors listed?
- Are conflicts of interest—such as an author’s or “expert’s” ties to manufacturers or organizations—listed?
Finding trustworthy information
As a nonprofit, CancerChoices has no financial ties to manufacturers or sellers of any of the therapies we review or other conflicts of interest. Nor are we selling anything. We cite the evidence for any ratings and assessments we make—linking to the source research articles in footnotes. We were created to serve as an independent, credible resource to support people with cancer and those who care for them make their best choices in their care.
Throughout the CancerChoices website, we link to external resources that we have found to be trustworthy and credible, including these:
|1||Sansevere ME, White JD. Quality assessment of online complementary and alternative medicine information resources relevant to cancer. Integrative Cancer Therapies. 2021 Jan-Dec;20:15347354211066081.|
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