Using aggregated search engine data to characterize public interest in science

Data about public interest in science and technology (S&T) and attention to S&T media coverage has been collected so far mostly by surveys with closed questionnaires. New technological affordances allow researchers to investigate public attention to S&T by exploring data sets recording searches, web traffic patterns, and other types of evidence of information-seeking behaviors.

We have found that the volumes of science- and technology-related searches change over time depending on the source of the cue that presumably motivated the searches: For well-established school science terms, such as “genetics”, search volumes strongly correlate with the academic calendar, whereas the search volumes for science terms extracted from news outlets, such as “Mars Rover”, are better correlated with news coverage.

After media coverage of science prompts searches, how quickly does the search volume decline? Subsequent research conducted specifically on the case of Nobel Prize announcements has shown that online users search for the names of Nobel laureates mainly on the day of the Nobel Prize announcement and that a half-life of this search volume elapses each day.

Based on this data, we propose that the window of opportunity in which users are open to new scientific information related to the prize may be no longer than a week. These findings may help decision-makers draft science communication and/or science education policies that cater to the public’s scientific information needs and desires.

Project Members

Ayelet Baram-Tsabari, Associate Professor

Ayelet Baram-Tsabari, Associate Professor

In collaboration with Dr. Elad Segev, Tel-Aviv University

Relevant Publications

Baram-Tsabari, A. and Segev E. (2013).
The half-life of a ‘teachable moment’: the case of Nobel laureates.
Public Understanding of Science, 0963662513491369
Abstract   PDF

Segev, E. and Baram-Tsabari, A. (2012).
Seeking science information online: Data mining Google to better understand the roles of the media and the education system.
Public Understanding of Science. 21(7), 813-829. Published online December 1, 2010.
Abstract    PDF

Baram-Tsabari, A. and Segev E. (2011).
Exploring new web-based tools to identify public interest in science.
Public Understanding of Science. 20(1), 130-143.
Abstract     PDF