New Year's resolution #2: I will publish my research

24 December 2013

There are few things more frustrating for a factchecker than finding out that a claim relies upon unpublished research. Even when a claim is inaccurate, you can usually get a fair idea of what is really going on by checking the research. But if the information behind a claim isn't publicly available, then we're left with a choice between blind faith in it, or blind cynicism.

Take our recent decision from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which prevents a 'misleading and unsubstantiated' claim about the number of lives that could be saved through first aid being broadcast again on television.

Despite the fact that the ASA has banned its reuse, the rest of us still can't judge for ourselves whether it stands up because St John Ambulance have refused to make public how they calculated their figures.

Information collected under the Freedom of Information Act can also be less than free. It's not uncommon for us to see a politician or party send FoI requests to all local councils, police forces or NHS trusts, and to make striking claims on the back of the results.

The problem for anyone trying to check these claims is that not all councils, police forces or NHS trusts publish all FoI responses, and even when they do, the time required to trawl through hundreds of disclosure logs can make it impractical for most.

This means that the only person in possession of all the information behind the claim is the person or group making it, and as we've seen, even the official Opposition are not always willing to share it.

Government itself is by no means a model citizen when it comes to backing up its claims with research either. This year saw a highly-charged debate on the cost of 'health tourists' play out among politicians and the media. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt claimed that over half of overseas visitors who should be charged for healthcare were currently identified by the NHS, and half of those again were succesfully pursued for the debt.

The Health Secretary didn't source his claim, and after speaking to his department, it became clear that the figures behind the claim weren't publicly available. What's worse, the Department of Health refused to release the information under the Freedom of Information Act, and we only eventually got our hands on the research - several months after the claim was made - after the decision was successfuly appealed.

This cloud does have a silver lining. Increasingly often the Opposition do at least give us the data when we ask or even publish it themselves, and we've been working to encourage departments to publish the independent statistics behind the claims their Ministers make too. While not all departments have yet adopted the measures called for by the UK Statistics Authority after our intervention, an increasing number - including the Office for National Statistics - are now doing so.

Full Fact fights bad information

Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.