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The most talked about research of 2017

While citations to academic papers are easy to track (see Google Scholar, World of Science), it’s quite informative to see what research people are actually “talking” about. Just yesterday my oldest son was reminding us that recent research on Tyrannosaurus Rex showed that the dinosaur species was likely more a scavenger than a hunter, a point to which his younger brother, who doesn’t seem to keep up with the literature as much as his ten-year-old counterpart (clear parental failing on my part), was quite adamant those were all lies and that T-Rex was a in fact a voracious hunter.


It seemed unreasonable to quiz my kids about the bulk of research in 2017 to see what of the peer-reviewed literature has filtered through, but fortunately, Altmetric has done the hard work for me by publishing their top 100 articles from 2017.


Altmetric pulls together a series of measures that relate how any given research article is used, discussed, cited, alluded to, etc. Overall, their Altmetric score, an aggregate index of all of their consdiered measures, serves as a good proxy for how likely my 10 year old or say your Uncle Bob will say, “Did you hear how flying insect biomass has dropped by 75 percent over the last couple of decades? Weird, huh?” at the holiday table this season.


An example Altmetric readout from the no. 6 most talked about article of 2017



A post on Scholarly Kitchen from Kent Anderson does a deep dive on these calculations and looks at this list as well.


Looking at the top 100, there is a good mix of rockstar science in here. Some major take home points if you want to hit it big . . . dinosaurs, coffee, exercise & weight loss, mass extinction, and global catastrophe are all over this list. Which makes sense if what goes into calculating the Altmetric score is considered. The old TV news adage is “if it bleeds, it leads,” . . . not sure what the science version of that axiom would be, but from looking at this list people definitely want to read about things that affect their health (e.g. gluten, smartphones, traffic, social media, coffee, the length of pubic hair), but they also want to read about big picture environmental issues too (e.g. plastic on beaches, water on the moon, new species, dinosaurs!).


I have culled through the list and pulled out the most talked about “ecology” and “environmental” research of 2017. From the list of 100, 15 articles fall (arguably) under the aegis of ecology. Some of these we have blogged about on PLOS this year already, but to be sure, there is some impressive research for sure.


Coming in at no. 6, from our very own PLOS ONE, “More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas” from Caspar Hallman and co-authors. Findings from this research show that the decline in flying insect biomass far exceeds previous estimates. Impressively, 206 news stories, 34 blog posts, and 3 mentions in Wikipedia came from this research, along with 3,917 tweets and 123 Facebook posts! Also 22 posts on Google+, which is still a thing. The more you know.


At number 8, “A Feathered Dinosaur Tail with Primitive Plumage Trapped in Mid-Cretaceous Amber” published in Current Biology. In this work, Lida Xing and colleagues describe one of the first non-availan theropods and describe a species that had teeth which it lost as it aged. 416 news stories, 39 blog posts, and 2,431 tweets from this one.


Detailed image of the described theropod tail from Xing et al. 2017. At left, the feathering can be seen in the amber.


Number 11 brings us “Evidence for early life in Earth’s oldest hydrothermal vent precipitates” published in Nature, a study on microbial life pushing the clock back for the start of life on earth to 4.28 billion years ago. 447 news stories, 27 blog posts, but only 857 tweets.


Hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the oceans create extreme environments, due to their heat and unique chemistry. Within these environments only extremeophile organisms, ones who thrive in these conditions survive. The conditions created mirror those of early Earth, making them prime study areas for the origins of life.


Number 21, “Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals” published in Nature. This paper examines how recent record temperature have caused mass bleaching of coral reefs and highlights the importance of curbing future global warming to prevent further damage. 388 news stories, 44 blog posts, and 1,784 tweets.


Coral bleaching occurs when coral expel the algae that live in the coral’s tissues, leaving the coral more likely to suffer stress, leading to increased likelihood of death. Bleaching occurs when water temperatures are too high


Number 29, “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made” published in Science Advances. As of 2015, 6,300 metric tons of plastic waste has been produced. This study looks at what will happen in the future if current production and waste management methods continue. 243 news stories, 6 blog posts, and 2,580 tweets.


Number 35, “Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines” in PNAS. This work analyzed the population declines and extinctions of invertebrate species due to effects from humans. 260 news stories, 31 blog posts, and 1,550 tweets.


Number 42, “Global risk of deadly heat” published in Nature Climate Change. In this paper researches identify the human threshold for extreme heat by looking back at records of heat related deaths since 1980. 243 news stories, 32 blog posts, and 1,225 tweets.


Number 51, “Exceptional and rapid accumulation of anthropogenic debris on one of the world’s most remote and pristine islands” published in PNAS. This study shows how discarded plastic is no filling up the shores of once pristine and remote islands in the Pacific Ocean. 294 news stories, 22 blog posts, and 445 tweets.


Marine debris that was washed ashore covers a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. (Susan White/USFWS)



The remainder of the ecological and environmental articles from the top 100 include:

No. 55 “Estimating economic damage from climate change in the United States” in Science

No. 70 “Widespread biological response to rapid warming on the Antarctic peninsula” in Current Biology

No. 72 “Morphometric, behavioral, and genomic evidence for a new orangutan species” in Current Biology

No. 82 “Bioaccumulation of persistent organic pollutants in the deepest ocean fauna” in Nature Ecology and Evolution

No. 84 “A new hypothesis of dinosaur relationships and early dinosaur evolution” in Nature

No. 94 “The global decline of cheetah Acinonyx jubatus and what it means for conservation” in PNAS

No. 100 “The code for facial identity in the primate brain” in Cell





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