The importance of fact-checking before publishing: The Gladwell case study

Times of crisis like this demonstrate how important it is to know truth from fiction. Written content has a huge impact on what people believe, and misleading or incorrect information can cause problems. When it comes to the Daily Mail or The Sun, we accept that at least some of the content is embellished or even entirely fabricated. But with books, particularly nonfiction books, we might assume they are based on solid, reliable facts. However, a few famous cases like Gladwell’s 10,000 hours demonstrate that even at major publishers, nonfiction books aren’t 100% correct, meaning they haven’t necessarily been fact-checked. So why not, you might ask? 

The primary (and probably unsurprising) reason is that it would be very expensive for publishers to hire fact-checkers for every book. Think of your average nonfiction bestseller and try to tot up how many “facts” they rely on. Unless the author conducted their own experiments and studies, they rely on other people’s evidence. For fact-checkers to verify this, they would need to find and read the original source of information for every fact. Doing so would be time-consuming, and hiring such individuals wouldn’t be cheap. Not to mention that it would slow down the publishing process, and a book that hasn’t been published yet isn’t making any money.

As such, publishing houses rely on the honesty and integrity of authors. They expect them to fact-check their own work before submitting it, to do their due diligence because their name is on the cover. The book is ultimately the author’s work, so there is a strong argument for them to fact-check anything they include. What’s more, it’s their duty to their readers to be honest and accurate, to not mislead readers or include poorly-researched “information”. 

Let’s take the Gladwell example. In his book Outliers, Gladwell uses research from psychologist Anders Ericsson to suggest the now infamous “10,000 hours to mastery” rule, suggesting that we can become world-class at anything if we practise it for this magic number of hours. Unfortunately, Gladwell misinterpreted (wilfully or not) Ericsson’s data. In reality, 10,000 hours was an average, and many people achieved mastery in less time if they practised deliberately. For Ericsson, the key was the quality of the practice, not the number of hours.  

However, for the publisher to verify this, the fact-checker would need to be familiar with Ericsson’s work already or become familiar with it, which may take hours of reading. And that’s just to fact-check one item in a book full of supposed “facts”. Imagine how long checking a whole book would take? 

By contrast, how much longer would it have taken Gladwell to properly understand the research and portray it accurately in the first place? Indeed, authors are best-placed to check the accuracy of their work when they’re writing the book. It would be difficult for an author to argue against doing this—unless they’re intentionally trying to mislead their readers. Sure, it might take them longer to write the book, but it also mitigates possible criticisms they might receive, so it’s well worth their time.  

As a nonfiction editor, I make it very clear to any authors I work with that they have a duty to be honest and accurate. If I come across ideas, information, or statistics that are missing a reference, I ask the author to cite their sources. If it seems like something is incorrect or misleading, I encourage the author to research the subject further, and at the very least, state if they are expressing a belief rather than a fact. I feel that this is part of my duty as an editor—as part of the publishing process—but not all editors do. 

Likewise, I feel that publishers have a role to play. Although the book is the author’s creation, the publisher enables its wide-spread availability for readers—and readers trust large, reputable publishers. So, publishers have at least some sense of duty to ensure that what they publish is accurate. While they may not afford to fact-check every book they publish, it’s arguable that they should hire fact-checkers to verify the accuracy of controversial, political, or “newsy” books. Ones that are likely to have a big impact. 

The alternative, certainly in the Gladwell example, is that the publisher could write to Ericsson asking him to confirm the interpretation of his research before publishing. As long as the original author is alive, this approach would take less time than employing a fact-checker and ensure a more accurate view of the findings. This method may be more effective for major publishers than hiring fact-checkers. In the era of #fakenews, the truth is more important than ever, and we should all be playing our part in publishing the truth. And that goes for newspapers, websites, and individuals—not just books.