While I do try to be polite to people whose opinion differs from mine I find it pretty difficult not to be terse with people who are putting others' health at risk with their bad advice!
Transcript: "PUBMED IS NOT FOR BEGINNERS. Browsing abstracts on PubMed does not take the place of a university education in a scientific field. Experience and knowledge of context are essential to comprehension as well as reading the WHOLE GODDAMNED PAPER. Stop being dicks. - Scientists Everywhere [fb.com/BasicBiologyBabe]"Clearly there's a big element of truth to this 'PubMed is not for beginners' idea, but I'm not sure that this sort of advice will convince the people who might need to be convinced.
People who are promoting dangerous or ridiculous treatments or diagnostic tests (think antivaxxers, homeopathy shills, live blood analysis, tuning fork therapy etc) occasionally cherry-pick a PubMed abstract and promote the idea that it supports their favoured treatment or test. I've collected a few examples in this Storify, some are pretty funny but it's sad to think people are being so badly misled. They seem a lost cause to be honest ;)
But what about non-specialist people who have a health condition, or care for someone who does, who want to find out more?
I'm hoping to go to an event on 'Communicating risk in health information' (London, Tue 26 Jan) which is for the subgroup of science communicator types who communicate health information. This is partly about helping non-specialist people to make sense of statistical information by helping those communicating it to express it more clearly.
A straightforward translation of 'science' to 'plain English' for an abstract (even for a whole article) will never be sufficient because an abstract or article cannot be read in isolation. Readers need to consider how it fits in with what's already known on a topic and also to know what conclusions can reasonably be drawn from a particular type of study design (how many people were involved, were they randomised etc) and just knowing lots about 'biology', for example, isn't enough. In fact it might give people a false impression of knowing / understanding.
A 2011/12 project, 'Patients Participate!', looked at ways in which patients could be more involved with health information providers (for example, medical research charities) and found that patients and the public wanted the following, which are all very reasonable -
- To find out about the latest medical research and how it relates to their health
- Accessible, plain English, searchable summaries of research articles that clearly communicate the implications and limitations of the research findings
- Information they can trust (credible, reliable and unbiased)
- To engage with researchers and research funders
- To be involved
- To learn more about research because theyare interested and they want to be better informed about the latest developments
- To help researchers be better communicators
Here's a comment I left under the picture on Facebook in response to people asking 'well OK, but where can we find this info then?' -
"Where possible I'd suggest, for medical articles, asking reputable health charities for their take on a study. Many of them have dedicated science communicators (of varying job titles) whose job it is to (a) explain the content of new studies AND (b) put it in context with other information known about the topic, as well as highlighting what conclusions can reasonably drawn from a particular study design etc.There are certainly many efforts made to 'translate' scientific abstracts into plain English but by itself this might not be very useful, as there is usually a requirement for some background information needed, in order to know how much weight to give to some new finding."