As well as my PhD I’m a freelance copywriter, currently working with 5 clients on a weekly basis. For some reason I decided that I just wasn’t busy enough, so I’ve also set up a little Etsy shop where I’m selling science postcards and prints. That little Etsy shop is called ‘Science On A Postcard’ and it’s also got its own Instagram page too.
How did Science On A Postcard start?
When I was younger I didn’t think I’d be a scientist – I planned on studying graphic design. I still like to doodle, and even throughout my science life I’ve injected creativity. I find drawing really relaxing. At the start of the year I started drawing, scanning drawings in to my laptop, and then messing about with them using Adobe Illustrator. Fast forward to a month or two ago, and I found myself really, really wanting to do this more regularly. Nothing career-changing, I just found it a really enjoyable way to get some head-space whilst communicating science at the same time. I bought an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, and decided I should probably do something to encourage myself to keep up this little doodling habit I’d built up – and Science On A Postcard was suddenly a thing!
In fact, I was at London City Airport waiting for my flight back to Aberdeen after the ABSW’s Science Journalism Summer School when I set up the Instagram account and started making things a bit more solid.
Currently I have two prints/postcards designed and listed in my shop. I opened the shop last night and I had a whole 2 sales before I went to bed! Super exciting. I’m not looking to turn this into a job, or a substantial money-maker, I just really like doodling science. I also really love getting mail so this seemed like a cute little hobby to keep going in my spare time.
Over the next few months I want to design more prints/postcards that show other types of scientists – qualitative researchers, chemists, geologists, geneticists, planetary scientists.. etc etc. Eventually I’m hoping that there’s a whole range of postcards that can be used to briefly show what different scientific careers are like.
To see more from Science On A Postcard visit the Instagram page, or take a look at the Etsy shop. If you have ideas for science careers that you’d like to see presented in postcard format, please do get in touch and let me know!
I’m currently in Cape Town for the Global Evidence Summit. A few days ago I posted some highlights from one of the plenaries and threaded sessions, and it seemed to be a helpful resource for people who were unable to attend the conference. With that in mind, I thought I’d come back and do another of those types of posts, this time with details of Saturday’s plenary which focussed on ‘Evidence in a Post-Truth World’.
As the title suggests, this plenary encouraged researchers to communicate their science and combat incorrect ‘facts’. It also emphasised the need to collaborate and communicate with people outside of our immediate research fields to create stories from objective facts in order to shape public opinion and steer the direction of the press and media into a more evidence-based environment.
EVIDENCE IN A POST-TRUTH WORLD: The evidence, ethos and pathos. How scientists can engage, and influence the public, press and politicians
The ‘post-truth world’ has been defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2016). The rise of ‘post-truth’ requires us to go beyond the question of how robust the evidence is and how persuasive it is. Notwithstanding the need for robust evidence, what else can scientists do (and with whom do we need to collaborate) to engage and influence public, press and politicians at a time when our own credibility in their eyes is low and falling? This session will include an academic overview of argumentation theories that have drawn and built on Aristotle’s early work, as well as presentations from a science journalist working in controversial fields and the editor of the African continent’s first independent fact-checking organisation.
The session features talks from Trish Greenhalgh, Anim van Wyk, and Caroline Weinberg – and it was absolutely and completely my highlight of the entire conference; some details on each presentation:
Trish Greenhalgh – Evidence In a Post-Truth World
This talk stunned me. Trish threaded so much information through this talk – she included recommended reading described in such a way that I actually want to read it, she gave examples of post-truths and public views on experts from Michael Gove, Brexit and the like, and she conveyed her message with such passion and enthusiasm. Honestly felt like a bit of an embarrassing fan-girl when I walked past Trish in the conference hall later on in the day; she’s the kind of researcher we need.
Recently I’ve been speaking to people around me both personally and professionally, and a lot of people have asked when I’m moving out of research and into science journalism and communication. They’ve got the impression from this blog, and my Twitter and Instagram feeds, that I want to leave research behind and focus on scicomm full time. That’s not the case at all. I want to stay in trials methodology research, but I think it’s really, really important that as researchers we improve the way we communicate our work – that goes for both the public and other researchers too. At the moment we seem to be so focussed on papers, publishing, conference presentations etc, that we’re missing the real communication that effectively gets our research out to people. Trish’s talk encouraged me to stay on this path; she’s a hugely successful researcher, she’s a Professor of Primary Care Health Sciences and Fellow of Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford, UK. She is an internationally recognised for her academic work, and she also trained as a GP. What’s most important though, is that she’s not sat in her office in Oxford working away in isolation; she’s engaged in two-way communication via social media, in talks and presentations, and she’s encouraging others to do so to.
Anim van Wyk – Pro-truth: How fact-checking journalism helps set the record straight in Africa
Anim is the Editor of Africa Check – a non-profit that aims to improve fact checking and news gathering in Africa. Before the conference I hadn’t heard of Africa Check, but now I know I’ll be following it’s work closely. Not only do the team at Africa Check hold public figures accountable for what they say (Michael Gove/Jeremy Hunt/BoJo et al. take note…), but they train others to do so to – offering training and research services to help others learn to fact check too. What I really liked about Africa Check’s work and Anim’s presentation, was the way that they communicate the reliability of the facts they’re checking. They use terms like ‘unproven’, ‘incorrect’, ‘correct’, and ‘exaggerated’, instead of labeling things as truths as lies. I think the fact that they have removed the value judgement from these terms is really helpful, and it will hopefully encourage more people to use Africa Check as a resource rather than a political tool.
Examples of Africa Check reports:
Caroline Weinberg – Community Activism: citizens role in promoting evidence based policy and practice
Remember the March for Science? Caroline was the national co-chair for that march; a first of it’s kind unprecedented global event that united more than a million people in 600 cities around the world. That’s pretty mind blowing. Caroline provided a passionate call too action in her talk, explaining that ‘the science does not speak for itself and we need to speak for it.‘ She encouraged researchers to engage with communities rather than purely presenting the facts to them – engaging in dialogue, discussion and debate, as well as conveying facts with meaning behind them (here meaning emotional or social implications rather than a significant p-value) to mobilise society and encourage the use of evidence again.
Caroline’s presentation was made up almost entirely of photographs from various March for Science events from around the world – the reach that this movement had is something we’ve never seen before in the scientific community, and it wasn’t just scientists marching!
This plenary left me feeling hugely excited and hopeful for the future. We’ve got a galvanised public and a scientific community that are finally switching on to the need to communicate and provide rebuttal to so-called ‘alternative facts’.
I don’t know whether the world of science communication has blossomed in recent months, or if I’m just more aware of it. What’s clear is that the field is booming. The variety of methods being used is vast – there are people using everything from cross-stitch to live streaming to tell people about science. As I’ve said recently, I’m working to do science communication too; I want people to understand what clinical trials are, why we need them, and how to critique them. That said, I follow a lot of other science communicators – I find their science interesting, and I love seeing how them communicate the concepts central to other fields of science. Take a look at the science communicators I’ve been loving recently, and make sure to give them a follow too.
For me, Sam is really at the forefront of pushing the use of Instagram for science. She regularly posts about her PhD research, providing easy to understand analogies for complex scientific processes. Not only that, but she’s a champion for women in STEM. Recently she drew attention to the horrendous advertising campaign that Benefit ran, facilitating a global discussion on the campaign via Twitter.
More recently, she is part of a cutting edge research project looking at how scientists represent themselves on Instagram, and how their selfies might influence public perception of scientists.
I’ve watched Alice’s YouTube videos for months – she explains concepts related to the brain in short and snappy videos. Some of the topics she covers are pretty common – déjà vu for example, others are weird and wonderful ideas that I’ never heard of – e.g. can babies smell in the womb? Whatever she’s explaining, she managed to simply convey very complication scientific ideas, whilst making sure her viewers aren’t left overwhelmed or confused. I really recommend her channel; she manages to provide answers for questions I wasn’t even aware I had.
Natasha’s blog is one of my favourites at the moment. She blogs about her life as a PhD student, as well as explaining various scientific topics. Her research focusses on resistance mechanisms in targeted cancer therapies, which is something I know very little about – but the way she communicates somehow makes that really accessible.
She also manages to inject humour into her posts. Her latest post ‘7 reasons your western didn’t work (again)‘ had me laughing out loud as the memories from my last stint in a laboratory environment came flooding back.
Maria is the driving force behind ‘We Are Microbes’, a super creative, and informative (soon to be) set of zines.
The first zine was published in June, and it focusses on science communication. I contributed to that zine – sending Maria a very basic Word document and a few doodles. She managed to integrate a huge variety of scicomm experiences into a professional-looking, engaging and beautiful zine. I was super proud to have been able to contribute, and I really look forward to the zines she has planned in the future.
Sophie was one of the first science communicators I ever followed – her name seems to be everywhere! She’s writes her own blog, contributes to others, runs a brilliant Instagram account, but recently I’ve been loving her content on Twitter. Her Twitter feed is the one place where I can keep track of all the projects that she’s involved in! She also retweets content from other science communicators that I find super useful too. Really, she’s one of those women in science that truly champions other women in science too – if you’re not following her, you should be.
Steph is ridiculously talented. She creates super cute hand embroidery designs that stem from science.
Honestly I don’t even know where she got this idea from, or how on earth she can create such adorable science art – if I had a wall at my desk (my desk’s in front of the window) I’d be all over these! They’d be great as gifts too. Her designs are usually on embroidery hoops, but in the past she’s sold clothing, mugs, and cushions with her designs on too. I’m really looking forward to the opening of her new Etsy shop to see what new products she’s got, and which old ones make it back.
Who are your favourite science communicators? Leave suggestions in the comments, I’m always looking for new scicommers to inspire and educate me!
This is the second in a series of posts I’m called ‘Clinical Trials Q&A‘. In this series I want to answer any questions people have about trials – from the basic to the obscure and everything in between – with the aim of demystifying the subject. I asked a few friends who don’t work in a trials environment what they don’t know about trials, and ‘why’ was the response I got back from lots of people. Read on to find out why we spend so much time, energy and resources conducting clinical trials in favour of other, often cheaper studies.
Starting with an example always makes things so much easier to explain. So let’s imagine that we are trying to find out if carrots can help you to see in the dark. This is something lots of children are told by members of the older generation in the UK – though it started out as a genuine claim made by the UK Ministry of Food during World War II. The British government backed a propoganda campaign (image left) designed to drum up public enthusiasm for the inexpensive vegetable as a substitute for costly and limited rationed goods.
So, does eating carrots improve your vision at night? To look into this we can divide participants in our study into two groups: those who already eat carrots and those who do not. We can collect data on how well each of these groups of people can see in the dark.
The results show that people who eat carrots can see better in the dark than those who do not.
Should we conclude then that carrots give you night-vision? Basically, no. This research method has found correlation rather than causation.
In order to find causation, or in other words, to prove that carrots can cause better vision in the dark, we need to introduce a methodological concept called randomisation. In our carrot example, this would mean allocating people into groups using a random method (a random number generator for example). Allocating people into groups rather than separating them into groups based on what their habits already are, means that the groups are thoroughly mixed with people that usually eat carrots, and others that don’t.
Randomisation also prevents selection bias from creeping in. Selection biasis a type of bias caused by selecting non-random data for analysis. In our carrot example this could be reflected in only women being in the carrot-eating group, and only men in the non-carrot-eating group. In trials, we need all of the groups to represent a mix of people; weight, height, sex, ethnicity, and disease history are all examples of confounders; things that could influence how our participants react to our treatment. Making sure each of the groups has a mix of characteristics effectively negates the confounders as they are spread out across the groups.
Now that we have randomised our study we can see no difference in the visual acuity of the carrot and non-carrot groups in the dark.
Clearly, this example involving carrots is much more simple than the complex medical questions that clinical trials are being used to answer. The point is though, that if something as simple as randomly allocating individuals to each of the treatment groups can dramatically change the results, then the design of a study is incredibly important to the research process.
This is not to say that other study types are not useful; observational studies like the one in the first part of our carrot example (i.e. without randomisation) are sometimes the only option for specific diseases and medical issues. Qualitative research methods are useful for shedding light on why something happens, and the factors that go into decision-making for example. For finding cause and effect, which is what we need when we’re working to ascertain the safety and efficacy of medical interventions, clinical trials are the gold standard method of evidence generation. Clearly trials are not perfect – if they were I wouldn’t be studying trials methods for an entire PhD, but they are the best thing we currently have to find causation.
Soapbox Science is a unique platform for scientists to do communicate their research to the public – it promotes women scientists and the science they do. Events transform public areas into an arena for public learning and scientific debate; they follow the format of London Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner. There’s no middle man, no PowerPoint slides, just a 12 speakers with a few props talking about why they are passionate about their research.
I took part at this year’s Edinburgh event, which was based on The Mound – a busy part of the city centre, meaning high footfall and lots of people to speak to!
Preparing for the event was tricky because I really had no idea how long people would stick around and listen to me for. I needed to make sure I could communicate key messages in a short time, and ensure that those messages were repeated so that when newcomers joined the group they would not feel that they couldn’t catch up with what was going on.
I decided on a few key points so cover:
What is a clinical trial?
Why are clinical trials important?
How can people get involved with trials?
Where can people find out more about my work?
The event itself
We were not lucky with the weather this weekend! It rained all afternoon and before I’d even got to The Mound to start my talk I was already soaking. We soldiered on though! One plastic poncho, one rain coat, and a lab coat over the top and I was ready to go. I also had my lovely friend Becca with me as a volunteer assistant; she spent the majority of my hour-long slot holding an umbrella, which was very much appreciated.
I was nervous to begin with because I really thought no one was going to turn up – the weather was so bad and there was a protest a few metres in front of us too (I’ll be clear here, no one was protesting our presence…). After the first person showed interest I made sure I asked them a question, that meant they then stayed to talk to me for a few minutes. Once one person had heard about my work, more people felt comfortable coming up to my soapbox to hear more – it’s that safety in numbers thing, meaning more people join as they see others engaging.
The people I spoke to were really diverse – students and researchers were the first to arrive as they had heard about Soapbox Science online, but after that we had children, psychologists, office workers, a few retired people who just happened to be walking past. This diverse group meant that my talk changed slightly every time a new person came over – I found it was more like a platform for a conversation, which I really liked. The atmosphere around the Soapbox Science arena felt very safe and relaxed; people asking questions who were genuinely interested to hear the answers, and it didn’t feel like anyone was afraid to ask.
Overall, I really enjoyed taking part in Soapbox Science, and I would recommend other PhD students get involved too. It’s a relaxed and fun environment that gives you a chance to talk about your research and get input from the public too. I stood on my soapbox for an hour and it went by so fast, I would happily have stayed up there for another hour!
Keep an eye on the Soapbox Science Twitter and Instagram pages for pictures of the other speakers – and follow #soapboxscience on Twitter to see highlights from the Edinburgh event and the rest of the events taking place over the summer.
How to get involved
I found out about Soapbox Science via Twitter, after seeing a call for speakers for one of their events I went online to see what I could do to get involved. Soapbox is growing every year, and there are now events taking place outside of the UK – hopefully summer 2018 will see even more events across continents!
To become a local organiser of a Soapbox Science event in your town, take a look here. To find out more about events, and to check what’s going on in your area, take a look here. This summer there are still UK events taking place in Brighton and Milton Keynes, as well as dates to be announced for Science and Art talks too.
I mentioned in a post a while ago that I am taking part in a Soapbox Science event – it’s fast approaching so here’s a reminder of what the plan is. Do come along if you’re around Edinburgh on Saturday, I’m hoping the good weather holds out and we get the chance to speak to lots of people about the science we do.
On Saturday 22nd July, researchers from across Scotland will take to their soapboxes on the historic Mound, next to the National Galleries, to share their passion for science with the public.
Soapbox Science was set up bring science to public spaces. Members of the public will have the opportunity to find out more about world-leading research, to ask questions, heckle and be inspired by our remarkable women in science.
Soapbox Science was commended by the Prime Minister in 2015, and awarded a Silver Medal from the Zoological Society of London in June 2016.
The speakers will be armed only with a soapbox and a white coat – there’s no speaker, no blackboard, and definitely no powerpoint!
Come along to The Mound from 12 noon to 3pm to hear talks from:
Ms Heidi Gardner (@heidirgardner), University of Aberdeen“What’s the point in taking part in a clinical trial?”
Dr Sharron Vass, Edinburgh Napier University“The placenta and the tumour, understanding the differences and exploiting the similarities”
Ms Aisling Doyle (@AislingDoyleEng),Edinburgh Napier University“Let’s see how electrified or electric-orrified you are about the electric car!”
Dr Alys Jepson, University of Edinburgh“Swimming bull sperm”
Ms Sara Schmidt (@AskSchmidt), University of Edinburgh“Using chemistry, gels and 3D printing to get healthier and happier cells in the lab”
Dr Anna Campbell MBE (@canrehab), Edinburgh Napier University“Exercise and cancer – Movement Matters!”
Dr Lourdes Alwis (@AlwisLourdes), Edinburgh Napier University“Smart Cities – the future of the world”
Ms Manisha Ajmani, Glasgow Caledonian University“Developing a low-cost Indoor Positioning System using Optical Wireless Communication”
Ms Tracey Jolliffe, NHS Fife“The Secret World of Bats”
Professor Lorna Dawson (@Soilfit), The James Hutton Institute “The answer lies in the soil”
Dr Amy Pederson (@amybpedersen), University of Edinburgh“A community within: parasite competition inside an individual has consequences for health and disease control”
Ms Mome Mukherjee, University of Edinburgh “Big Data – What is the Asthma story?”
Recently I’ve been really trying to up my sci-comm game. To improve my writing, I think it’s important to write lots, and read lots, but sometimes networking and more structured training just can’t be beaten. I joined the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) last month, which was perfect timing for their summer school. I booked the day off work and signed up straight away.
On Wednesday 5th July I got flew from Aberdeen to London on the red-eye flight, and got to the Wellcome Trust building just after the first session so I didn’t miss too much after a 5am alarm! I know lots followed along on Twitter (#abswss17), so I’ve compiled my huge pile of notes for those of you who couldn’t make it.
Session 1: New media trends
Where are our audiences? The latest insights about digital news consumption from the Digital News Report 2017
Nic Newman, research associate, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and lead author of the digital news report
Moderator: Martin Ince, Treasurer, ABSW board and freelance science writer
As I said, I missed this session – I was somewhere between London City Airport and Euston Street so I followed along on Twitter for this one too. A few highlights:
For science to truly benefit society it has to be tested by critical and professional science journalism @BBCPallab at @absw's #abswss17
Session 2: The role of critical science journalism in the fake news world
Alok Jha, Science Correspondent, ITV
Moderator: Pallab Ghosh, Honorary President, ABSW and science correspondent for BBC
This was a brilliant session drawing attention to the rise of fake news, and discussing solutions that journalists can use to combat false information. What I particularly enjoyed was Alok’s personal experience and learnings over the course of his career; “Fake news isn’t new in science journalism – it’s the speed of the tidal wave in recent times that’s shocking“. Alok explained that when he started his career he truly believed that producing and spreading high quality, accurate journalism was enough to combat so-called fake news. Now an experienced journalist, he calls his past-self ‘naive’ and the spread of good news vs bad ‘not helpful’. So what can we do? People are not stupid, but the world is not always logical and rational, so reporters need to stop giving ‘the view from nowhere’ and provide critique and advocacy for good science.
Panel 1: Pitching skills – how and where to sell you story ideas
Helen Thomson, freelance science journalist and consultant for New Scientist
Inga Vesper, freelance science journalist
Aisling Irwin, acting editor, SciDev.Net
Joshua Howgego, features editor at New Scientist
Laura Greenhalgh, assistant policy editor, Politico
Moderator: Mico Tatalovic, Chair, ABSW board and Environment and Life Sciences News Editor, New Scientist
At first I didn’t really think this session was particularly relevant to me, but after listening to the speakers the idea of pitching articles to editors actually sounded like something I might be able to do in the future.
Tips I picked up from the session:
General topics are not good pitches – you need a clear story with developed characters
It needs to be new – check the archive of magazines and Google news
It should have moved science on – small steps happen in science every day, why is this step so special?
Does it make you go ‘WOW!’? – surprise is always good
It needs to be relevant – how is this story relevant to readers? That could be application or interest
Would you tell your friends down the pub? – the ‘pub test’ is tried and tested, if you’d tell your friends it’s likely to get commissioned
You need to be an expert – don’t pitch an article that you haven’t done a significant amount of research for
Don’t patronise the Editor, but do write in accessible language
Panel 2: Investigative science reporting
‘Why investigative journalism matters, with examples from science’ by Rachel Oldroyd, managing editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
‘How we uncovered Google Deep Mind’s secret NHS data grab’ by Hal Hodson, technology reporter at the Economist (previously New Scientist), and Will Douglas Heaven, freelance (previously chief technology editor at New Scientist and editor of BBC Future Now).
Moderator: Jack Serle, Vice-Chair, ABSW board and reporter Bureau of Investigative Journalism
I found this session the most intriguing. Investigative reporting has never been something I thought I’d do, but hearing about it was so interesting, and if I ever do stumble across a story worthy of substantial investigation it’s now something I might think about exploring. Hearing from Hal Hudson and Will Douglas Heaven was a good case study for this; from stumbling across a story right through to breaking it and ultimately becoming a part of the story through further developments. There was one aspect of this subject that was missing; how do you fund investigative journalism? In usual cases of journalism writers are paid a set amount per word, or per article. If that was the case with investigative pieces then journalists would be bankrupt – it’s a process that can take months, and it requires a huge time investment to uncover genuine stories that are relevant to the public interest.
Session 3: Data journalism skills
Jonathan Stoneman, Freelance trainer in Open Data
Moderator: Wendy Grossman, ABSW board member and freelance journalist
Data is something lots of people find intimidating – especially when there’s lots of it. With this talk, Jonathan Stoneman somehow made ‘having a chat’ with your data a thing I feel like I could do – amazing! He described data as ‘just another source’ that you need to dig through, interview, chat to, and play around with in order to find the best stories. You need to ask it questions and really think about what it is telling you. Some resources that Jonathan mentioned:
Session 4: EurekAlert!’s science news service and media survey results
Brian Lin, director of editorial content strategy at EurekAlert!
Moderator: Mico Tatalovic, Chair, ABSW board and Environment and Life Sciences News Editor, New Scientist
EurekAlert! is an online, global news service operated by AAAS, the science society. EurekAlert! provides a central place through which universities, medical centers, journals, government agencies, corporations and other organizations engaged in research can bring their news to the media. Brian Lin explained more about how EurekAlert! has grown over the years, what the service can offer, and why journalists really should be signed up to it. Brian also unveiled the results of EurekAlert!’s 2017 reporter survey.
I don’t qualify to be signed up to EurekAlert! just yet – more journalism experience required! Once I start writing professionally, I’ll definitely be signing up though. It sounds like a brilliant platform for finding out about fresh science.
Panel 3: Successful freelancing
Mark Peplow, freelance science journalist
Max Glaskin, an award-winning journalist and the author of Cycling Science
Inga Vesper, freelance science journalist
Moderator: Jack Serle, Vice-Chair, ABSW board and reporter Bureau of Investigative Journalism
I had to rush out at the beginning of this session to go and catch my flight back to Aberdeen, so again I was following along on Twitter with everyone else. I’d recommend getting in touch with the journalists who presented in this session if you’re looking for advice on freelancing; all day these guys were giving advice and encouragement to those of us at the very beginning of our journalism careers, so I’m sure they’d be happy to answer questions. Mark: www.markpeplow.com, Max: twitter.com/CyclingScience1, Inga: twitter.com/Keeping_Cool.
Didn’t make it to #abswss17 and still want to know more? Check out a storify of the event here. I’d totally recommend signing up for membership with ABSW whether you’re looking to begin a science journalism career, you want to learn more about the journalism industry, or you’re a pro. They’re a wonderfully friendly and supportive group, and their events attract people with a wealth of knowledge – it’s a brilliant networking opportunity.
I also met up with Mary who is running The STEM Squad’s Instagram page this week – I love it when contacts stop being online profile and start being real-life people. Definitely follow The STEM Squad if you’re a woman in science looking for support and inspiration.
After a super full and tiring day, I left feeling inspired and driven to push myself to do more. Science communication isn’t something that a lot of early career researchers get the chance to be involved with, but I’m going to make a conscious effort to communicate my research, and the process of getting to research findings, as best I can. Do keep an eye on the ABSW events page if you’re looking for events like this in the future!
If you’re interested in science communication at all, I thoroughly recommend you watch it below:
Mona is a Data Journalist, and she’s seriously talented (after watching this talk I turned into a bit of a fan girl and watched lots more of her work – she also worked on the BBC3 documentary ‘Is Britain Racist?‘ which was brilliant too). Moving on from that fan-girl moment, the way Mona communicates data and statistics in a simple and easy to understand way shocked me a bit. The illustrations she’s done make things so easy to digest.
After a few weeks of thinking about this data doodle method of communicating information, I thought I’d have a go myself – the results of a few hours doodling and multiple scrappy drafts are below. All the data is from my PhD Supervisor’s Cochrane recruitment review – it was originally published in 2010, with an easier to digest version published in the BMJ in 2013. We’re currently in the process of updating that review (I’ll be a named author on the update which is pretty cool) , so when the update is out I might have a go at tweaking my doodles to see how additional data has changed things.
Information framing Does framing information in different ways have an impact on the number of people who agree to take part in trials? Maybe, but the data we have isn’t great – the study we have has a very small sample size, but it might be something worth looking into with future research work.
Here, all of the information given to trial participants was truthful, just framed in slightly different ways. An example; the piece of information that participants needed was that 20 out of every 100 people experiences side-effects from the experimental drug and 80 people do not. A negatively framed version of that statement would be, ’20 people out of every 100 experience side-effects from the experimental drug’, a positively framed version would be, ’80 people out of every 100 don’t experience any side-effects at all from the experimental drug’. A neutral version would be the original statement which gives all the information.
You might think that positively framing information would increase the number of people who agree to take part in your trial, but that’s not the case here. Neutral framing – i.e. giving the potential participant all of the information required to make their own decision, with no sway in the framing of that information either way, actually results in more people saying yes. That said, each framing group only had 30 people in it.
Telephone reminders When potential participants are sent letters of invitation to trials, a lot of the time they end up in the bin, on top of the fridge, underneath that huge pile of life admin that’s been left on your desk for the past few months. If you give those potential participants a call and remind them that you sent them a letter, they’re more likely to then take part in the trial. Not rocket science is it? Nevertheless, we have some evidence that more people accept when they’ve had a telephone reminder. This is good because recruitment is difficult and if you only manage to boost your numbers by a few percent, you’ll happily take a few percent.
Placebos versus active comparators If your trial treatment/drug/surgical technique/whatever, is being tested against a placebo, people are less likely to agree to take part. That isn’t a massive shock but it’s nice to have data to back it up. In general, people would rather that there was an active comparator; I guess you can think about it like this – you can bet £5 to get $50 back or lose your money, or you can bet £5 to get £50 or get your initial contribution back – getting the placebo is viewed as a loss rather than the lack of a gain.
What do you think about this type of science communication? Is it something that you might have a go at with your own research work? I really enjoyed doing it and I think it was a nice way for me to get my head around the data too – something different to work on.