Checking facts when facts change

During my days as a newspaper copy editor, I did a lot of fact checking. Is this name spelled right? Is that the right phone number? Is so-and-so really CEO or is she CFO?

I don’t spend my time in a newsroom anymore, but I still do a lot of fact checking — for presentations, lectures, freelance projects, etc. In fact, I think one of my biggest fact-checking projects ever was for a textbook I edited.

In that project, I was presented with an interesting fact-checking problem. The book is part of the open source textbook effort, and as such, it exists only online or as a PDF (unless you want to print it out yourself).

So when something is out there online, how do you account for the fact that facts can change? For instance, at one point the textbook discussed the number of search results returned on Google for an unusual event. It was low (around 6) on the day the author wrote the chapter. By the time I did the editing, it was well into the double figures.

And I figure by this time next year, it will be higher.

In the old days, it was clear that the facts in a book were based on life on the day of publication. But in an online-only book, do we need to be constantly updating information as part of the fact-checking process? That would get rather tedious after a while.

In the case of this book, I asked the author to add an “as of XXX date” before the information. When you read the book online, you don’t see a clear date anywhere, so adding that seemed vital, especially when it is so easy for the reader to check.

In other spots on the internet, there may be a date stamp that helps out. But it’s worth thinking about this before you edit something that has a long shelf life. Facts do change. How do we keep fact checking from being an never ending process?

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