Report: a new online project gives people the chance to be a scientist from the comfort of their own home

By Ann O'Brien, Declan Devane and Elaine Finucane, NUI Galway

Have you ever wondered if eating cheese really does give you nightmares? Does wearing your coat inside the house reduce its ability to keep you warm outside? Does taking a walk at lunchtime make us more productive in the afternoon? Or perhaps you have a question of your own

If so, your time has come because you too can become a scientist this summer. The People's Trial is an online project that gives you the chance to be a scientist and together with researchers create a fun, online randomised trial from the comfort of your own home. This initiative will facilitate the creation of a randomised trial, created for the public by the public. 

So what is a randomised trial and why is it important? Randomised trials have been set out in a very structured and planned way to make fair comparisons between treatments, to find out which is best. It is a type of research study that compares groups of people receiving different interventions and looks at which of these improves health outcomes the most.

An intervention is anything that aims to make a change to someone’s health. Providing a counselling service, giving a drug, or giving people information and training are all described as interventions. It could also be eating cheese, wearing your coat or taking a walk at lunchtime. The decision about which group a person joins in a randomised trial is random, which means that a person is put into one of the intervention groups by chance.

While "facts" about health are everywhere and the "Dr Google" approach can produce any kind of information, most of us need help to figure out which information is reliable. The internet has opened a new world of possibilities; it helps us learn new things and can offer the opportunity to do nice stuff. 

The People’s Trial is funded by the Health Research Board through the Health Research Board-Trials Methodology Research Network HRB-TMRN and aims to enhance public understanding of randomised trials by facilitating the involvement of the public in the trial research process. This means you can be involved in all steps of the trial process from question prioritisation through intervention and outcome selection to randomisation and data collection to dissemination. 

We have gathered together an exciting line up of research experts from all over the world who are eager to engage with the public in trials. People who participate in the People’s Trial can be confident that their opinions and experience of The People’s Trial will influence how future trials engage with the public.

People are at the centre of randomised trials and the best research responds to questions identified by people who have lived experience and address real people’s needs.  The People’s Trial is a novel project that aims to stretch the boundaries of participation in clinical research; it’s an experiment to discover better ways of involving the public into the research process using the internet. For the first time, researchers will hand over control of a randomised trial to the public to answer a question of their choosing, in the way they want. 

Finding ways for people to have their say in a meaningful way is at the centre of The People’s Trial. While people are often asked to contribute ideas online, the People’s Trial aims to enable shared decision making online leading to an exciting exchange of knowledge. 

By taking part, you will learn about randomised trial research by actually doing it. Submit a question for the trial and we will work together to decide the question for the People’s Trial. Together we will explore the stages of designing the People’s Trial using the different types of online participation and interaction that will include live online video events and online decision making. 

You can find out more information on our website or email with any questions 

Ann O'Brien is research associate on The People's Trial and a PhD candidate at NUI GalwayProf Declan Devane is Professor in Midwifery and Deputy Dean of the College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at NUI Galway. He is also Scientific Director of the Health Research Board-Trials Methodology Research Network HRB-TMRN, Director of Evidence Synthesis Ireland and Director of Cochrane IrelandElaine Finucane is a research associate in the Centre for Health Evaluation, Methodology Research and Evidence Synthesis (CHEMRES) and a PhD candidate at NUI Galway

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ