Welcome to the February 2015 High Five here at Altmetric! In this blog post, my first for Altmetric, I’ll be leading you on a tour of the top 5 peer-reviewed scientific articles this month according to Altmetric’s scoring system. On a monthly basis from here on out, my High Five posts will examine a selection of the most popular research outputs Altmetric have seen attention for that month.
To tell you a bit more about me, and what this ‘High Five’ bit is all about… My name is Paige B. Jarreau, and I’m a PhD candidate studying science communication. (My blog From The Lab Bench is over at SciLogs.com where I am also the blog manager, if you want to check it out). I also have a Master’s degree in Biological Engineering. So my expertise is wide-ranging. In these posts you might find me commenting in-depth on molecular biology and nanotechnology on the one hand, and psychology and communication on the other. But the point with this High Five series isn’t for me to interpret and summarize the top papers of the month at Altmetric – there are plenty of scientists and journalists doing that already. The point is to look at the published research each month that is resonating with readers, journalists and bloggers, and to explore what they are saying about this academic work and perhaps why they were inspired to tweet about it, blog about it, write about it or visualize it. So, let’s go!
#1. Marine Trash
The first of the High Five is a research report published this month in Science, titled “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean” and authored by Jenna R. Jambeck and colleagues.
“Considerable progress has been made in determining the amount and location of plastic debris in our seas, but how much plastic actually enters them in the first place is more uncertain. Jambeck et al. combine available data on solid waste with a model that uses population density and economic status to estimate the amount of land-based plastic waste entering the ocean. Unless waste management practices are improved, the flux of plastics to the oceans could increase by an order of magnitude within the next decade.” – Editor Summary, Science
The New Zealand Herald headlined with “More than 25,000kg of plastic littered in NZ daily,” writing that according to this new study, between five and 13 million tonnes of plastic waste wind up in the world’s oceans every year. The more precise estimate according to the Science study authors is 8 million tonnes of marine plastic a year. But according to data from Jambeck and colleagues, the “worst offenders” in terms of dumping plastic into the oceans are China, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. The US also makes the list of “worst offenders,” ranking 20th as visible in a graphic produced by The Guardian.
“Coastal populations put about 8m tonnes of plastic rubbish into the oceans in 2010, an annual figure that could double over the next decade without major improvements in waste management efforts, scientists warn.
The mountain of plastic litter, including bags, food packaging and toys, was equivalent to five full shopping bags of debris for every foot of coastline bordering nearly 200 countries the team studied.” – The Guardian
“This input of plastic waste to the oceans is several orders of magnitude more than we can see, which means there’s a lot of plastic out there that we are not finding,” study author Jenna Jambeck told Ian Sample at The Guardian.
This study seemed to resonate with scientists, news makers and citizens alike. For one, estimates of marine litter have until now been very coarse. The documentation of ocean-bound waste streams reveals an alarmingly clear picture of what has been classically mysterious to us as our trash “disappears” every day from the bins at the end of our driveway or from the sides of our streets.
“New estimate: 4.8-12.7 million t of plastic enters the ocean every year. Unknown fate for 99% of that. Error in calc? http://t.co/OqUrHMDgiw”
— Trevor A. Branch (@TrevorABranch) February 13, 2015
— Trevor A. Branch (@TrevorABranch) February 13, 2015
Some news outlets covered the story with a “blame” frame, mostly highlighting the “worst offenders” data published by Jambeck and colleagues. Other outlets, including Vox, took the story in a “where does it all go?” direction, which I believe is the better question to leave scientists and publics with.
“A separate study last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identified massive swirling garbage patches in each of the world’s oceans that contain up to 35,000 tons of plastic.
Yet those patches accounted for less than 1 percent of the plastic thought to be in the oceans — and no one quite knows where the other 99 percent went. One possibility is that marine creatures are eating the rest of the plastic and it’s somehow entering the food chain. But that’s still unclear.” – Brad Plumer, Vox
The bottom line? Reduce, re-use and recycle your plastic products. These things don’t “disappear,” even if we’re not quite sure where they are going.
#2. Twitter Language Patterns Reveal Heart Disease Factors?
The second paper in our High Five list is an interesting study that uses language expressed on Twitter to characterize community-level psychology correlates of heart disease. “Language patterns reflecting negative social relationships, disengagement, and negative emotions—especially anger—emerged as risk factors; positive emotions and psychological engagement emerged as protective factors” (Eichstaedt et al., 2015, Psychological Science). This study got lots of attention on Twitter (of course!) and in online science news outlets. Pacific Standard headlined with the phrase “Happier Tweets, Healthier Communities: New research finds county-level mortality from heart disease can be accurately predicted by analyzing the emotional language of local Twitter users.”
“Measuring such things is tough, but newly published research reports telling indicators can be found in bursts of 140 characters or less. Examining data on a county-by-county basis, it finds a strong connection between two seemingly disparate factors: deaths caused by the narrowing and hardening of coronary arteries and the language residents use on their Twitter accounts.” – Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard
Guess which Twitter-based factor emerged a protective factor against heart disease mortality in the study? Engagement, or participation in community activities. Apparently, community influences are playing more of a role in predicting heart disease mortality than the directly expressed sentiments on Twitter. Twitter users are young (median age is 31 years old), but the sentiment of young people’s tweets say something about the nature and “health” of local communities, which in turn say something about heart disease mortality. So it’s not like if you tab over to Twitter right now and type in a bunch of hostile words your blood pressure will rise (although it might make your followers’ blood pressure rise!)
David Glance points out in an article at The Conversation that “[w]hat this study definitely does not say is that being angry on twitter will lead to, or is anyway related to, heart disease, which has been the unfortunate suggestion in the selling of the study in news reports.”
“The combined psychological character of the community is more informative for predicting risk than are the self-reports of any one individual.” – Eichstaedt and colleagues, 2015
It is very important to point out that this study is based upon correlational data and can’t say anything about causation or prediction of heart disease at the individual level, as some news headlines suggested. A few scientists pointed this out. Glance highlighted the misleading nature of several graphics accompanying news stories about this study, which make the Twitter sentiment data look like it has more predictive power than it actually does.
“The study is interesting in that it suggests that a specific communities’ makeup can be identified by the language that they use on social media. This in turn may be an indicator of other factors such as the specific community’s health and well-being and the consequences of that health and well-being.
However, as attractive as those suggestions may be, the study showed weak correlations and gave very little underlying support for any particular theory of “causation”. So as much as they could speculate, the researchers could really not say why they saw these statistical results. The paper actually highlights some of the fundamental problems with so-called big data where large numbers distort statistics to point at imagined relationships.” – David Glance, The Conversation
#3. Using Your Smartphone to Detect Infectious Disease
The next High Five article takes mobile apps to a whole new level. In a February 2015 report in Science Translational Medicine, researchers describe “a smartphone dongle for diagnosis of infectious diseases at the point of care,” a lab-on-a-chip technology. You could see how this report captured readers’ imaginations. Smithsonian magazine reported that the “$34 Smartphone-Assisted Device Could Revolutionize Disease Testing: A new lost-cost device that plugs into a smartphone could cut down on expensive lab tests.”
This video from the Sia lab (Samuel K. Sia was the PI on this research) shows how the device works: http://youtu.be/TC9XNqSgj4w
“All it takes is a drop of blood from a finger prick. Pressing the device’s big black button creates a vacuum that sucks the blood into a maze of tiny channels within its disposable credit card–sized cartridge. There, several detection zones snag any antibodies in the blood that reveal the presence of a particular disease. It only takes a tiny bit of power from the smart phone to detect and display the results: A fourth-generation iPod Touch could screen 41 patients on a single charge, the team says.” – Nicholas Weiler, Science Mag
#4. Forever Young
Our forth stop is a study titled “Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy” published in the journal “Frontiers in Psychology” in January 2015.
“Last week, a study from UCLA found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who’d been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain — although older meditators still had some volume loss compared to younger meditators, it wasn’t as pronounced as the non-meditators.” – Alice Walton, Forbes
This study received quite a bit of Twitter and blog attention, especially from members of the public and psychology bloggers. The study didn’t seem to attract much attention from science communicators. NeuroscienceStuff at tumblr.com provides a breakdown of the study here.
“The researchers cautioned that they cannot draw a direct, causal connection between meditation and preserving gray matter in the brain. Too many other factors may come into play, including lifestyle choices, personality traits, and genetic brain differences.” - NeuroscienceStuff
#5. Martian Mystery Cloud
What better way to start off a popular science story than with a tale of a mysterious Martian cloud? A letter in Nature published this month reports “the occurrence in March and April 2012 of two bright, extremely high-altitude plumes at the Martian terminator (the day–night boundary) at 200 to 250 kilometres or more above the surface, and thus well into the ionosphere and the exosphere.” According to Eric Mack writing at Forbes, “A strange cloud or haze rising extremely high above the surface of Mars has astronomers struggling to come up with an explanation for the phenomena that fits with the existing scientific understanding of the Martian atmosphere. [...] The phenomena extended 250 kilometers above the surface and was the size of a major tropical storm on Earth.”
“Such record-breaking feature defies our current understanding of processes on Mars atmosphere.” - Grupo de Ciencias Planetarias
Did other scientific research articles inspire you this month? Share them here or tweet them at us! Find Altmetric on Twitter @altmetric. Find me on Twitter @FromTheLabBench.