IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


New project seeks to improve public health campaigns by examining language around vaccinations

28 September 2020

A £1 million project, led by Lancaster University in collaboration with UCL Institute of Education (IOE) and the University of Leeds, which aims to achieve a better understanding of how the public view vaccinations, has just been announced.

Doctor injecting patient with vaccine. Image: CDC via Unsplash

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the ‘Questioning Vaccination Discourse’ Project (or ‘Quo VaDis’) applies the latest techniques for large-scale computer-aided discourse analysis to investigate how the public speak and write about vaccinations, specifically in social media discussions in English, UK Parliamentary debates and UK national press reports.

The goal is to arrive at a better understanding of pro- and anti-vaccination views, as well as undecided views, which will inform future public health campaigns.

The project will be based in the world-renowned ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS) at Lancaster University, which was awarded a Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2015. 

The research will be carried out by an interdisciplinary team consisting of linguists (Professor Elena Semino, Dr Claire Hardaker, Dr Vaclav Brezina from Lancaster University, Dr Zsófia Demjén from the UCL Centre for Applied Linguistics, based in the IOE, and Professor Alice Deignan from University of Leeds), a virologist (Dr Derek Gatherer) and a policy expert (Professor Robert Geyer).

The team will work with three main project partners: Public Health England, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.

The World Health Organisation's (WHO) list of top ten global health threats includes 'vaccine hesitancy' - 'a delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccination services'. 

Vaccination programmes are currently estimated to prevent between 2 and 3 million deaths a year worldwide.  However, uptake of vaccinations in 90% of countries has been reported to be affected by vaccine hesitancy. 

In England, coverage for all routine childhood vaccinations is in decline, resulting in the resurgence of communicable diseases that had previously been eradicated. In August 2019, the UK lost its WHO measles elimination status. 

“The reasons for vaccine hesitancy are complex, but they need to be understood to be addressed effectively,” said Professor Elena Semino, Principal Investigator of the project.

“And the ways in which controversial topics such as vaccinations are talked about both reflect and shape beliefs and attitudes, which may in turn influence behaviour. This has become even more urgent with the Covid-19 pandemic and the unprecedented speed at which vaccines are being developed.”

While the project was conceived of before the pandemic, the team will begin by exploring discourses around the Covid-19 vaccines. 

Dr Zsófia Demjén (IOE), Co-Investigator on the project, said: “We are operating in a very different way at the moment, also in terms of vaccine development. What impact does this have on how views about vaccinations are expressed, for example, through patterns in choices of vocabulary, pronouns, negation, evaluation, metaphors, narratives? This is what we’re setting out the investigate.”

This project will involve the analysis of multi-million-word datasets using the computer-aided methods of Corpus Linguistics - a branch of linguistics that involves the construction of large digital collections of naturally-occurring texts (known as 'corpora') and their analysis through tailor-made software. 

“We will reveal both differences and similarities in pro- and anti-vaccination views over time and across different groups of people, particularly as they form groups and interact on social media,” said Professor Semino.

“Through the involvement of our Project Partners these findings will feed into the design of future public health campaigns about vaccinations.”