Sense about Science – Ask for Evidence campaign

The initiative encourages people to request the evidence behind news stories, marketing claims and policies

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Since 2006 Elsevier has supported Sense About Science's work to promote peer review amongst policy makers, journalists, social influencers and civic organizations in the UK and – lately – in the US and around the world. We do this because we believe that for people to play a full and informed role in society they need an understanding of what good scientific evidence is.

Sharing peer review

When we first started talking to scientists about communicating the idea of peer review to the public, many were skeptical. The view was that this was a technical, internal process, of interest to the scientific community and no one else. Through our peer review program and our public guide to peer review, I Don't Know What To Believe, we have encouraged scientists to stand back and think of the important role that peer review plays in wider society. How does someone with a chronic illness assess some breakthrough research reported in a newspaper or discussed online? How might an expectant mother weigh up claims made in commercials about the benefits of supplements and diets? Knowing to ask of research 'is it peer reviewed?' (and what that means) is a great first start. Peer review can be at the heart of the public understanding of what constitutes quality science – and what doesn't.

Ask for Evidence

For the past year and a half, we have been using a new tool to discuss and explore peer review, the status of research claims and the importance of evidence: the Ask for Evidence campaign. It launched as a pilot in the UK a little over a year ago, encouraging and helping people to request the evidence behind news stories, marketing claims and policies. When people see a scientific claim (in a newspaper, commercial, government policy or anywhere else) we encourage them to Ask for Evidence, and then have our network of over 6,000 scientists ready to critically appraise the quality of the evidence supplied in response. A big part of this process is sharing resources to assess research including our public guide to peer review.

Ylann Schemm, Senior Corporate Responsibility Manager, Elsevier

Elena Porro, Senior Editor, Cell Press

At the beginning of last year, we launched Ask for Evidence in the US with members of our Voice of Young Science (VoYS) network. VoYS is a program which Elsevier supports to encourage early career researchers (ECRs) to play an active role in public debates about science. The message of VoYS is: if you're a scientist, you don't have to be head of your department or at the end of the career to stand up for science. Through a series of workshops we've mobilized a grassroots VoYS network in the Boston area. And in February 2013 this network launched Ask for Evidence at the MIT museum.

Growing the campaign

Since the launch, US VoYS members have 'asked for evidence' on a number of claims, from supposed aphrodisiacs such as oysters and Rhino horn to some popular 'food myth' questions, such as 'Can artificial sweeteners in soft drinks cause health-related problems?'

One ECR who got involved was Amy Vashlishan Murray, a professor at Emerson College in Boston. Amy felt that her students – non-scientists studying communications – could use Ask for Evidence as a way to better understand and communicate scientific ideas to the public.

Amy Vashlishan Murray, Ask for Evidence coordinator, Emerson CollegeEmerson College students

Soon after the US launch, Amy successfully applied for a grant to incorporate Ask for Evidence into some Emerson College courses, and a number of professors at the college are now working with their students on Ask for Evidence activity. Students have created comic strips, websites, undertaken research into claims, recorded podcasts, and taken part in a competition to design adverts for use on the Boston T metro.

"We're using the campaign as a framework for discussing how to evaluate evidence in a range of different courses" Amy told me. "We emphasize peer review as a key criteria for quality evidence and I find that these are important conversations to have in the classroom because students are not always aware of the nature of the review mechanism and what it achieves." Indeed, almost exactly a year since the launch of the Ask for Evidence campaign in the US, Amy was able to organize a showcase and celebration of Emerson College students' activity, displaying all the creative ways they had communicated the ideas of sound science, peer review, and Ask for Evidence.

Creative work by Emerson College students

Amy sees this work as the beginning of something. "Building momentum from the Ask for Evidence party and showcase, we're expecting Emerson students will play a role in spreading the message that evidence matters and that we ought to ask about it.  Students here are well-integrated with social media and are skilled and creative communicators so I think we will also develop some interesting and exciting models for communicating stories about asking and the evidence that results".

Given Amy's success within Emerson College, we're now looking to see if their Ask for Evidence activity could be used as a model in other US institutions. And anyone can get involved in the Ask for Evidence campaign by simply asking for evidence.

I don't know what to believe

Last year, Sense About Science worked with 12 partners including Elsevier to successfully launch I Don't Know What to Believe – our public guide to peer review – in the US and in China. This followed its successful launch and dissemination in the UK. The guide sets out the basics of what peer review is, and why it matters. We've had requests from a wide range of audiences in the US, including university departments, schools, paramedics and the Environmental Protection Agency. And the Chinese translation of the guide was distributed and promoted on the social network Weibo, getting 2.8 million views in two weeks.


Author biography

Max Goldman
Max Goldman joined Sense About Science in 2013 as Development Officer. Prior to working with the organization, Max completed a Master's of Research at the London Consortium, a cross-disciplinary group of museums, galleries and academic institutions designed to bridge the gap between public and academic discussion.

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