Every aromatherapist or herbalist has been there. A new article is making the rounds. It’s eye-opening and popular. Everyone is sharing it and discussing how it impacts their work. The information is groundbreaking. How do you know whether or not the article legitimately justifies the claims it makes? Here are the four steps we teach students here at FIW. (Note: Evaluating a scientific study is covered elsewhere. This page refers specifically to online articles such as those found in blogs, sales websites, and the like.)

Step 1: How many citations are primary sources? 

Most bloggers and authors now realize the value in adding citations to the bottom of an article, but the presence of citations alone does not make an article evidence based and does not make the author’s understanding of an issue accurate. Many articles are packed with citations that actually fail to substantiate the concept.

Valid citations are those which link to primary sources, which are scientific sources written by researchers, for researchers. Those are the only citations which can substantiate a scientific claim. Skim through the list of citations and look for primary sources which are found directly in the scientific literature.

Step 2: Who is the author? 

Everyone considers themselves a researcher these days and the terms researcher and scientific researcher are used interchangeably. Countless aromatherapists and herbalists use this title and discuss their research interests and research projects in their bios. But are they using the term scientific researcher in place of professional google searcher? Or do they legitimately have education, training, and expertise in conducting scientific research? Cambridge defines researcher as: “someone whose job is to study a subject carefully, especially in order to discover new information or understand the subject better.” A scientific researcher does not merely look at existing knowledge; they produce new knowledge through the process of discovery using established research methods and tools. This is not the same thing as spending a great deal of time searching websites and databases, or even searching through research conducted by researchers.

One easy way to tell whether or not the author is an actual scientific researcher is to look at their educational qualifications. Scientific research is not a self-taught field; it requires graduate level training with a minimum of a master’s degree, if not a PhD from an accredited university. And not just any graduate degrees; these should be in scientific research fields.  If the author does not have these credentials, he or she is misusing the title of “scientific researcher.”

Why does this matter? Studies published in scientific journals are written by researchers for researchers, so they don’t contain the explanations and clarifications that would be found in an article written for non-researchers or lay people. If the article in question is discussing or describing scientific research, it’s crucial that the author be able to analyze, assess, and interpret this research accurately. Without that level of expertise, the author is not going to be able to accurately express the findings of scientific research. 

Step 3: What is the article’s primary claim?

There is usually an implication or giveaway in the title in regards to the overarching claim of the article. What is the dominant concept or idea being presented in this article? Does it say that this essential oil is useful for that condition? Or that this herb is unsafe for this population? What is the ultimate point or the most important premise in this article?

In other words, what takeaway does the author want to share with each reader? If you could summarize the article in a single sentence, what would that sentence say? This is the primary claim and this is the claim which must be substantiated.

Step 4: Is that primary claim substantiated? 

For an article to be evidence-based the author must substantiate the article’s primary claim sufficiently. Articles are not automatically evidence based if they are written by researchers or if they are packed with citations. To be evidence based, the article must accurately and fully reflect the entire body of scientific literature as a whole. This means that the author will be qualified to interpret a wide range of scientific studies, within the context of each methodological design, and be able to summarize and express those findings in a way that accurately conveys what the studies collectively find. Therefore, the primary point will be packed with references to the research being translated.

Many lay authors will pack an article with citations, sometimes even valid, primary source citations, and still fail to support the overarching premise of the article. Because they are unable to substantiate the primary claim, they focus on supporting other sentences in the article rather than the overarching point.

If the primary claim itself is not supported with multiple primary sources and properly interpreted by someone who is qualified to interpret scientific literature, then the article is not evidence based.