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Last Updated: Monday, 5 November 2007, 16:01 GMT
The numbers behind the survey
Scientist Albert Einstein

Numbers can sell and numbers can tell a story. But is the story always true? BBC Radio 4's More or Less's Ruth Alexander investigates the relationship between academics, surveys and public relations companies.

"A survey reveals ... 22% of women know they're marrying the wrong man on their wedding day ... eight out of 10 children say their parents' choices of Christmas presents are a waste of money ... almost half of people living with home-assembled flat-pack furniture are in danger of falling out of bed."

Eighty-seven percent of stories landing on the nation's newsdesks have been commissioned by a company with a product to sell. Two in three are obviously ludicrous, but a third slip past journalists and into the headlines.

That is according to a fictitious survey commissioned by BBC Radio 4's More or Less programme.

Numbers have an amazing ability to turn nothing-very-much into a story.

But could this be to the detriment of scientific research? A psychologist at University College London (UCL) thinks so.

Dr Petra Boynton
Dr Boynton believes PR surveys can undermine academic work
Dr Petra Boynton is a fierce critic of the pubic relations (PR) survey and says it is becoming harder to get the media interested in serious studies: "A lot of the problem with this kind of work is that it overflows the market.

"It gives too many surveys out there, so when you have got something that you've taken many, many years over, and really tried your hardest on, and you've got some good answers, you may not get it out if someone else's survey hits the press the same day."

And she says it is not just scientists who should be concerned.

Numbers have an irresistible appeal to public relations consultants, not least because of their irresistible appeal to journalists
She says the public is being fed a constant diet of misinformation and although a lot of surveys seem like a bit of fun, or an interesting conversation piece, they should be taken more seriously.

"I've noticed - as someone who does sex research - that because so many surveys use sex within their work, what you end up with is more misleading information, and people get terribly confused.

"You know, are we supposed to be doing it once a week? Twice a week? Three times a night? What's normal?" she adds.

Survey snapshot

But numbers have an irresistible appeal to public relations consultants, not least because of their irresistible appeal to journalists.

Andy Gallacher who works as a consultant for broadcast communications agency Markettiers4dc says: "I would say at least half of our projects will actually springboard from a piece of research.

It has scientific credibility just as much as a political poll predicting an election outcome
Andy Gallacher, consultant
"It gives a reason for a local radio station in particular to think, yeah, that story applies to my audience, and it's going to be relevant.

"It gives it that human kind of real edge."

The agency has a sister company which designs consumer surveys on behalf of clients.

The surveys are sent to 50,000 people on an e-mail list and because they are filled in using the internet they can be turned around in less than a week.

Once at least 1,000 people have responded, the survey is closed, and the respondents are entered into a prize draw. The responses are then weighted to reflect the UK population, and a computer sorts the data according to basic demographic information like age, gender and region.

Mr Gallacher says even the simplest, most light-hearted survey can be counted on to provide an accurate snapshot of UK opinion: "It has scientific credibility just as much as a political poll predicting an election outcome.

I'm not really looking for money, I just love to promote education to people that don't normally get it
Dr David Holmes, Psychologist
"We work with exactly the same sample numbers, we work to the same weighting criteria.

"What it's not trying to do is change necessarily the way people live, the way people think - it's trying to convey a brand message," he adds.

Perfect bottom

But while Dr Boynton from UCL frets, other academics see it as an opportunity to promote science and get involved with the PR campaigns.

The hired "expert opinion" is another carefully-constructed part of the story, neatly packaged for journalists. The public relations company expects the individual to mention the relevant brand name during interviews with the media.

Psychologist Dr David Holmes says: "I've done quite a few of these PR jobs. Generally speaking I just do it for expenses.

"I'm not really looking for money, I just love to promote education to people that don't normally get it."

On one occasion he came up with a formula for the perfect bottom, on behalf of a drinks company. It made headlines around the world.

He admits the formula would not stand up to mathematical scrutiny, but he says it was a great opportunity to talk about science to people who don't read academic journals: "I could see immediately that there was an angle because health evolutionary psychology focuses on the derriere so much.

"And it's so important in terms of our past and how we selected mates, and I could see I could slide this information in."

Objectivity

Professor Cary Cooper from Lancaster University says: "Sometimes by raising the issue in the public arena, we get more support for doing the long-term systematic science on it.

Professor Cary Cooper
Professor Cooper thinks awareness of the issues can aid funding
"So sometimes as academics, we have a problem of getting our research funded without publicity."

Chair of Cardiff University's research ethics committee, Professor Ken Woodhouse says it is fine for academics to do private work, but they should always pause for thought.

He says: "My main advice would be to think this is my academic reputation, and to look very carefully at the quality of the study that's been undertaken, and to ensure that you are convinced that it is independent, objective and academically rigorous.

"If it is then it's perfectly reasonable to make comments on it, but if a person was paid then I think they would have to declare the interest in speaking to the press."

But his colleague Dr Tammy Boyce points out that the onus is on the press to be more open with the public about the origin of its stories.

BBC Radio 4's More or Less was broadcast on Monday, 5 November, 2007 at 1630 GMT.

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