I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Iain Chalmers the other day, and blogged about it here. He was talking about a fabulous initiative to encourage children to be more skeptical of the health information they read, and the plan to really test which of the educational interventions is most effective. Great – anything that encourages and skills up children in aspects of numeracy, risk and general skepticism is a good thing.
As part of my job as a medical librarian I facilitate sessions on critical appraisal of research -helping students and clinicians to be better able to read research papers. We use the CASP checklists as the basis of these sessions. The attendees are self selecting – those who are either least confident of their abilities, or perhaps who want to just double check their skills. But the general impression that I have is of insecurity in interpreting the statistics, and sometimes if being able to see the wood for the trees, it feels like many authors present their work in the most complicated way possible.
If the students, doctors, nurses etc who come to these sessions lack confidence and are genuinely confused by what they’re reading, then what hope primary school children?
And thirdly, we have Ben Goldacre, as part of his work with the sense about science and all trials groups calling on better reporting of trials. (Nature article doi:10.1038/530007a) There are too many problems around full disclosure of data, biased publication, poor peer review for me to mention here.
Which brings me to wonder ….
I sat listening to Sir Iain, in a room packed with editors, peer reviewers and authors. How many of them ever considered asking for or provided a plain language summary? Cochrane systematic reviews have these as a matter of course, but how many other articles?
Why do researchers write articles that are difficult for their peers to understand?
Why do not more of them feel it is a moral obligation to write at least a short summary that would make their work more accessible to the general public, for whose benefit it has ultimately been carried out. (sorry if that sounds naive..)
Why don’t research funders, who are increasingly eager to ensure that the work they fund is available via open access, do more to require that that same work is accessible, as well as being accessible: