Fact Checking versus Proofreading

Several people asked me to explain the difference between fact checking versus proofreading and whether they are part of the same process. (Nope.)

First, what is fact checking? It is verification that statistics and other facts stated in the document actually are contained in the reference(s) cited for those items.

Why or when would you need to do fact checking? Any document going before any kind of review board should be fact checked. In the pharmaceutical world, all materials— whether they’re flyers, sales training materials or package inserts—go before a medical-legal department to ensure that the company can back up everything their literature says. On a smaller scale, continuing healthcare education materials undergo similar scrutiny. Other sensitive or highly visible documents in any industry warrant fact checking.

You’d be surprised at how many errors fact checking can uncover. I recently worked on a continuing education course that cited 80 references, and 11% of them contained errors—including citing the wrong journal name/issue date/page numbers. Sometimes statistics in the course didn’t appear in any reference cited. Two URLs were no longer valid. And two references were duplicates of others—but they were cited so differently that proofreading probably wouldn’t have caught the errors.

One can argue that the document’s author is responsible for the references they use. True, but no one is perfect. Occasionally I find that authors misrepresent statistical data presented in the reference—a sign that they’ve read only the journal’s abstract—or cherry-picked a statistic and interpreted it the way they wanted to. That’s like English students reading CliffsNotes of Shakespeare instead of his actual plays.

So how does proofreading mesh with fact checking? I can speak only for myself, but I spot-check references as part of my proofreading services. Which references do I choose to check? Key ones—like those that help “build a case” for supporting a certain opinion, procedure or treatment. Also, anything that gives me an uneasy feeling when I read it in context. (After a while, you develop a sixth sense for such errors.) 

What if you’re “just” writing a report for your department chair or a vice president? Does fact checking matter? Absolutely. Expect to get grilled on your report. If you don’t know what’s in the background material you used in writing your document, you could become an exec’s lunchtime fodder.

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