Plain-speaking research summaries could help the public make more informed decisions in major societal issues like COVID-19, says Charlie Rapple, co-founder of Kudos.
Misinformation about science and healthcare spreads quickly – and acting on the wrong information can have drastic consequences. Research from The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene found that, of the 2,311 reports related to COVID-19 prevention or treatment written between January and March 2020, 88.7 per cent were classified as rumours and 7.8 per cent were conspiracy theories. So, how can we support the wider public in understanding what represents rigorous science research?
When we face emerging global challenges, such as extreme weather or COVID, there are typically knowledge gaps — something particularly evident at the beginning of the pandemic. These can be made worse by the misconception that scientists deal in absolute truths. In reality, science is an ongoing process of discovery that expands our understanding of topics, but may not always provide definitive answers on what each of us should do in relation to global issues. Public trust in scientific research can be undermined by the complexity of findings. However, the pandemic has led to an increase in the public appetite for science. While it might be easy to find information — as of July 2022 there are 3,820,000,000 search results for the term COVID — it’s not always clear which information is trustworthy. When reviewing reports for their paper in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, for example, researchers found articles offering a range of unfounded COVID prevention measures, from eating garlic to spraying chlorine.
So how do we ensure that the public can find, understand and act on reliable, scientific research?
Science needs Stories
People without academic training are unlikely to know where to start when looking for research articles. However, for public interest or health topics, like COVID or climate change, it’s important that people can form opinions based on quality evidence. To support this, we must make it easier for the public to find and understand scientific research.
This requires us to tackle two main problems. The first is that scientific reports are usually written for other scientists. Recommendations are made in academic language that is hard for non-specialists to act on. The second problem is that science is published across such a wide range of academic publications and university resources. We can tackle both problems with a central platform designed specifically for plain-language explanations of science. Writing stories about research brings it to life so more people can take on board its implications and recommendations. Armed with better understanding, readers can use the important takeaways from the research to make more informed decisions.
Scientific publishers, societies, universities and funders should be working together to fill the knowledge gap, tackle disinformation, and influence how people behave during public health crises.
Stories can accelerate scientific impact
Our success in tackling future pandemics depends on how well we learn from this one. The global public adopted a wide range of new behaviours based on guidance from researchers. We now need to make sure that follow-up research is clearly explained to maintain trust in science in preparation for potential future pandemics.
The rapid response required for the prevention and treatment of illness during the coronavirus pandemic also accelerated research and development in multiple fields. We’ve seen unprecedented research into vaccines, drug development, mask efficacy and more. For example, research published by the American Institute of Physics has shown how advances in machine learning led to the development of low cost microscopes. Explaining these advancements to the public will build on and maintain trust and interest in science.
The coronavirus pandemic also accelerated developments in cheaper and quicker technologies that enable patients to take some aspects of their healthcare into their own hands. Alternative testing techniques, such as rapid PCR tests and the ability to use mobile applications for self-reporting were vital in curbing disease transmission. As a result, smartphones are emerging as a new tool for patient monitoring, contact tracing, data collation or sharing, and performing point-of-care tests. Improving reporting also means that researchers have much larger datasets, enabling them to make significant developments in modelling to better understand the spread of disease.
Providing better access to influential research that is easy to understand ensures that whenever we face major social issues, whether it’s another pandemic, climate change or something else. Equipped with better understanding, everyone who plays a role can understand and act on reliable research.
The Kudos research communication platform provides research summaries on a range of topics, including explanations of trustworthy research on Coronavirus and other respiratory and infectious diseases, at growkudos.com/showcase/collections/coronavirus.