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The hunt for information: who does the public trust?

The hunt for information: who does the public trust?

Doug WarrenFollowing our blog last week about public perception of the information around GM, Doug Warren explains what the recent Wellcome Trust Monitor can tell us about the way people get information about science and medical research. Doug is a Research Manager at Ipsos MORI.


Almost nine out of ten of us look for information about medical research online - in the Wellcome Trust Monitor eighty-seven per cent of adults and eighty-six per cent of young people who looked for information about medical research said they looked online - and we turn to the internet when we feel ill. When looking for advice about medical conditions, it is very important that the information people access is reliable. While the internet has brought almost limitless information to people’s fingertips, it doesn’t provide any guarantee of quality. Googling the term ‘vaccination’, for example, returns over 35 million results; a huge number, considering that this is an area where people’s opinions have historically been influenced by media stories, which has had a lingering impact on public health.  Which of those 35 million results led people to informative sources?

Scientists have the challenge of cutting through a deluge of information and ensuring people can access accurate and unbiased information. Looking at people’s current search habits provides some clues as to how they might do this. People adopt a number of tactics to help ensure that the information they find is reliable.

MULTIPLE: First, they look at multiple sources of information (typically the first four of five results on Google)

COMPARE: They check the information from each to see if there is consensus.

VALIDATE: People say that they then try to get some measure of the reliability of the different sources of information they access.

For example, Wikipedia is frequently consulted as a first point and used to signpost to other sources if necessary. Once people find information coming from universities, this is then seen as more trustworthy. (Sixty-six per cent of adults say they trust scientists at universities completely or a great deal to provide them with accurate and reliable information about medical research.)  However, we don't know if people are simply name-checking sources of information in other stories and being satisfied with this, or whether they are actually clicking-through to university sites or journals to read research at first hand.

The more we know about the actual search process, the better decisions scientists can make on how to communicate their work. Should they attempt to leverage the trust people place in scientific and academic institutions or should they work with wider media outlets? What about social media? Scientists have embraced innovations like Twitter as a means to tell people about the latest research. Our research, however, suggests that social media isn’t always the best way of communicating with the public as it can be seen as lacking depth and potentially biased. Furthermore, over-reliance on social media, and online communication generally, might alienate people who are less tech-savvy.

We'll be finding out more about how people view the 'nuggets' of information they get through social media, and how this interacts with other forms of searching for information,  in the next wave of our PAS 2014 online qualitative work.

Let us know your burning questions about this. Scientists, what do you need to know about the public's information-sourcing habits, to help you disseminate your work?

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