Public confidence in science: Vector abstract background. Fake framework of Mirò

Does media coverage of research misconduct affect public confidence in science?

The SOM (Society Opinion Media) Institute at the University of Gothenburg conducts annual surveys of the Swedish public. It explores, among other things, media consumption, confidence in societal institutions and different professional groups. Since 2002, an independent and influential Swedish non-profit membership organisation that works to promote dialogue and openness between researchers and the public called Vetenskap & Allmänhet—which stands for Public and Science—has added a section to the SOM survey to study public confidence in science and scientists.

The first study, which examines the hypothesis that media reports of research misconduct will have an impact on public confidence in science and scientists, has been performed in cooperation with the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden.

This study involves comparing the SOM survey results to the number of articles on research misconduct published between 2002 and 2013. Media included in the study are the nine largest Swedish newspapers, including four tabloids, and a news programme on Swedish public service TV.

A total of 356 news reports on research misconduct were coded for the period 1 January 2002 to 31 December 2013. There is a large fluctuation in the number of published news items on research misconduct from one year to the next. And, in general, the number does not seem to be on the rise. If anything, there has been a slight decrease in the number of research misconduct articles during the last two years of the study. Only 16 % of the articles were published by tabloids.

Medical research is by far the most frequently reported area for research misconduct; more than half of all published articles concern this field of research. As medical research is an area of high public interest and concern, misconduct within this discipline may generally be considered more newsworthy than misconduct in other research areas.

When comparing the number of published articles on research misconduct with public confidence in science and scientists, the increased reporting of misconduct in medical research during 2005 and 2008 appears to correspond to decreased public confidence in medical science and scientists (see Figure below).

Correlation between number of media reports on research misconduct, and public confidence in science and scientists (numbers and percentage, respectively, on the y-axis).

A similar pattern can be seen for the humanities in 2005 and to a certain extent for the social sciences in 2005 and possibly also in 2011; for technical reasons, the confidence data of the latter year may not be entirely reliable, and should thus be interpreted with caution.

The study also implies a strong relationship between media consumption and confidence in science and scientists. Regular readers of a morning paper–who read it at least three days per week–have more confidence in science and scientists than those who do not read a morning paper on a regular basis.

The data of the study is currently being analysed in more detail. The results will be presented and discussed during a session named Fifty Shades of Deceit – transparency, accountability and public perception of research misconduct at ESOF 2014.

Fredrik Brounéus, Project and Communications Manager, Vetenskap & Allmänhet, Stockholm, Sweden.

Karin Larsdotter, Research and Project Manager, Vetenskap & Allmänhet, Stockholm, Sweden.

Ulrika Andersson, Research Administrator at the SOM Institute, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Maria Lindholm, Director of Research, Vetenskap & Allmänhet, Stockholm, Sweden.

Featured image credit: puckillustrations via Fotolia

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2 thoughts on “Does media coverage of research misconduct affect public confidence in science?”

  1. The issue is even more serious that it may seem at the first sight. As globalization brought transparency in each sphere and media gained enormous power it is compulsory to control media at the moment. There should be no misconducts, all information should be checked up carefully and approved, that is what I think. At the other hand, to restrict for media recources access to sciencitic research means to harm science even more.