Students + PR research = possibility of backfiring

Pseudo-scientific studies may scupper future career hopes, warns lecturer. Zoe Corbyn reports

November 26, 2009

Students are being asked to devise "scientific" formulae to help lend PR surveys an air of academic rigour.

It is not unknown for academics to be offered money in exchange for developing equations or composing surveys designed to promote a particular product, but now a case relating to an undergraduate at the University of Leeds is causing consternation in the blogosphere.

The student was featured in the press last month after winning a competition run by vodka-drink manufacturer VK Vodka Kick to devise "academic research" to obtain a formula for the perfect night out.

The biology student surveyed 2,000 people to produce the winning equation.

But the case has concerned some academics, with one arguing that the involvement of students raises ethical questions, and that there are also serious implications regarding universities' reputations.

Although Leeds disassociated itself from the competition, it has emerged that the university's press office did facilitate media interviews with the student and posted a summary of one press clipping on its website.

A spokeswoman for Leeds said the survey was "a personal matter" for the student involved.

"The university did not endorse the competition," she added.

However, Petra Boynton, a lecturer in international healthcare research at University College London, who has discussed the case in her blog, disagrees: "If you have a student who does a piece of PR work that is linked to your university and you then publicise that in your press cuttings, or let the student know that journalists want to talk to them, you are involved in that work," she told Times Higher Education.

"Universities need to be aware that the problem of PR activity in misusing scientific approaches has now been extended to students, and they need to start thinking about what that means."

She said universities also needed to consider their students' reputations in such cases, and think about informing them of the possible future impact on their careers.

Institutions should also ensure that students conduct such research within ethical guidelines, Dr Boynton added.

A spokeswoman for VK Vodka Kick said the Leeds student worked with members of the VK team to carry out "field research", with the company paying for the relevant nights out.

The firm worked within licensing-authority guidelines and "wanted to apply some science to the art of having fun", she added.

An academic at the University of Bristol previously devised "instructions for the perfect way to dunk a biscuit" thanks to funding from McVitie's, and a scholar at Leeds came up with a "formula" for the perfect bacon butty, which was commissioned by Danish Bacon.

In September, the author, journalist and TV producer Simon Singh, president of the mathematical sciences section of the British Science Association, said that such studies created confusion between real and pseudo-research and increased public perceptions that scientists and mathematicians are "bonkers", waste money on pointless research or deliver results according to who pays.

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