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The science that didn’t make the news

by Eva Amsen

After last week’s Article Level Metrics workshop, PLOS hosted a “data challenge” in their San Francisco offices. With datasets from PLOS, CrossRef, ImpactStory, Mendeley and Altmetrics, attendees got a few hours to tinker around and see what they could do with it. I tried to find the science that didn’t make the news.

In a few weeks, I will be co-hosting a panel at SpotOn London about the fact that even though a lot of science is now available via open access journals, the news still seems to come from press releases, and largely from glam journals. The fact that original research is increasingly easy to see does not make it easier to find or understand for people outside of journals’ regular readership.

I’m curious if there are ways to get interesting science in the news via other means, besides press releases, and one way to start making my case was to see if there were papers that should have made the news, but didn’t.

There were.

After just a very brief look into the datasets available at the data challenge, I was able to uncover several key papers, published between 2010 and 2012, that didn’t get covered as much as they should have. I looked at the top-shared papers on Mendeley, which were shared about 20-60 times more than the average paper, and checked in Altmetric whether they had been covered in the media. Most of the top papers made it to the news, but a few of these extraordinarily popular articles never got shared beyond the scientific community, even if they were newsworthy:

The Life History of 21 Breast Cancers. This paper in Cell was one of the most-shared papers on Mendeley, indicating that there was a lot of interest from other researchers. It describes the genetic changes over time in breast cancer tumour lineages, and provides information about what happens in breast cancer before it is diagnosed. It didn’t make the news, but it was covered on the CRUK blog and by the researchers’ home institute.

Direct reprogramming of somatic cells is promoted by maternal transcription factor Glis1. This Nature paper, by Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka, never made the news either. It was only reported on the Node, in a conference summary written by Richard Berks. I was the community manager of the Node at the time, so I consider this a small personal victory, but I’m surprised the paper didn’t get more attention.

Choice-specific sequences in parietal cortex during a virtual-navigation decision task. Another Nature paper. This one features virtual-reality mazes for mice, and studies decision making and memory. That sounds awesome and you’d think it would be an ideal page filler for many newspapers’ science sections, but it didn’t make the news at all. It was only featured in a journal club blog post.

Multiple dynamic representations in the motor cortex during sensorimotor learning. Another Nature paper about neuroscience. Cited several times, featured on F1000Prime, tweeted a bit, and shared over a hundred times on Mendeley (where the average is around 5 shares), but nobody else seems interested in learning more about what happens in the motor cortex when we learn certain tasks. That seems unlikely.

Oligodendroglia metabolically support axons and contribute to neurodegeneration. Okay, it sounds like a mouthful and not at all catchy, but behind this long title is (again) a Nature paper that suggests that oligodendrocyte degeneration might be an early indicator of ALS. It’s a speculative study with not much therapeutic value yet, but it’s exciting news for patients with ALS. It didn’t formally make any news outlets, but Virginia Hughes covered it on her excellent blog Only Human.

You’ll notice that these papers are all from Cell or Nature. Overall, most top-shared papers in Mendeley were from those outlets and not open access.  I also looked at the top shared open access journal articles in this time period. None of the ten I checked made the news, but most were very specific and technical. However, here is one from PLOS Biology that I think should have been covered in mainstream news outlets:

Species Interactions Alter Evolutionary Responses to a Novel Environment. This paper about ecosystems and environmental change was shared 199 times on Mendeley (one of the top papers!) and covers a topic that should interest a lot of people, but it was only discussed on one blog.

Why did these papers not get the attention that – judging by the number of times the paper was saved in Mendeley – the scientific community thought they deserved?

I found press releases for a few of these papers, so there was an attempt to get the news out there, but there might have been other news that diverted the attention of the journalists or editors. Science news may also get axed when breaking news in other areas happens. In all cases, it would have been impossible to tell at the time the papers were published that they would be so popular among scientists in those fields, and with the exception of the breast cancer paper, the above titles were not very catchy and wouldn’t have drawn immediate attention. It’s only now, a few years later, that we clearly see that they were popular papers.

What does this mean for science reporting? “News” is supposed to be immediate. Plane crashes. Bush fires. War casualties. Award ceremonies. All can be reported quite quickly. But science moves slowly, and it can take months or years to learn the significance of a published paper. Even then, the paper will cover discoveries made much earlier, over the course of – again – months or years.

How can we get science “news” out there if it isn’t really news? I don’t have the answer, but at least I hope I’ve been able to show that with the current system  important science news goes unreported.

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ALM Data Challenge: Metrics for a Standard Set of DOIs | PLOS Tech October 31, 2013 - 11:07 PM

[…] Science that didn’t make the news: analysis of highly bookmarked articles in Mendeley that are not mentioned in the news or in science blogs using Altmetric data. Eva Amsen described the project in detail in a blog post. […]

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