We are excited to announce that registration is now open for the 1:AM Altmetrics conference, to be held in London on the 25th and 26th of September this year.

This conference is the first of its kind to be held in Europe, and we invite librarians, funders, publishers, researchers, and anyone interested in new forms of research evaluation and impact assessment to join us for what is sure to be an interesting few days.

1:AM logoThe aim is to provide an opportunity to share ideas and discuss how and why altmetrics are or should be applied in the scholarly arena. We will hear from publishers, funders and institutions to learn about their experiences (good and bad), and encourage delegate feedback and input in the group workshop sessions.

Amongst the many varied contributors will be an update from James Wilsdon, Chair of the HEFCE steering group on Metrics, and a presentation from Todd Carpenter, Executive Director of the National Information Standards Organisation in the US, who are currently undertaking a review of altmetrics with the aim of developing standards across the discipline.

We are also inviting delegates to share their ideas and experiences in communicating research or the application of altmetrics to their workflow in an informal poster session. Just fill in this form to let us know you’d like to bring one along – we’ll display them in the refreshment area and during the drinks reception. It’s a great opportunity to show off some of the activity that’s been taking place within your organisation, and we can’t wait to learn about of the brilliant initiatives that are underway.

Organised (and kindly supported by) representatives from the Wellcome Trust, Altmetric, PLOS, Elsevier, Springer and eLife, delegate fees are just £15. Following a day of invited speakers and interactive sessions, the Thursday evening provides a chance to get to know colleagues from the wider community during a drinks reception – and there is also the opportunity to take a guided tour of the Wellcome Collection exhibitions.

Travel grants for the conference are on offer to librarians and researchers wishing to attend – to apply please see the details on this page (the deadline for applications is the 29th of August).

Places are likely to fill up fast so register today.

We look forward to having you join us in London!


We recently had party to celebrate the launch of Altmetric for Institutions, and all of the hard work that has gone into it over the last few months.

It was a nice chance to relax, have a beer (and a donut!) and show off our shiny new platform to all of our colleagues.

Altmetric developer Shane was photographer for the night – here is a selection of the action he captured:


We’re already busy working on the next developments (and the next box of donuts…) so stay tuned for more news from us soon.

To celebrate the launch of our new video, Founder Euan Adie takes a look back over the first few years of Altmetric – from the initial idea to building the team we are today: 

Euan Adie

What first got you interested in altmetrics?
I used to work in bioinformatics, in a lab at Edinburgh University. I wrote a blog about interesting papers or methods I’d come across, and there was a great set of computational biology blogs by others that I’d read every day.

I found those blogs far more useful than, say, journal club. I always wondered why you couldn’t see links out to blogs from journal articles, or conversely have an index of which papers were being mentioned by who. There’s a lot of good discussion happening around research online and it isn’t usually linked to where it’d be most useful to see it, next to the research in question.

So that was one thing that got me interested in these kinds of ideas. The other was a broader problem about getting credit (and funding) for your work. It’s crazy that we still have to do things like write articles about datasets or software not because people need to read the article but because without it some people will assume it cannot be formally cited, and their uses may not be recognized.

What have been the biggest challenges in the first few years of Altmetric.com?
Just staying afloat! Not in the financial sense, as we were pretty lucky to have paying customers from fairly early on. But there was always a lot to do, and we were a very small team, in some cases with no prior experience in scaling up to meet new challenges.

Getting investment from Digital Science helped with this, as they were able to offer some support beyond just money. In particular Aldo de Pape at Digital Science was really helpful in a hands on kind of way in the early days.

What’s your favourite thing about going to work every day?
Interacting with the team. Which sounds really cheesy, but is true. One advantage of having a start-up is being able to choose who you get to work with.

It makes me very happy to look around and see talented, passionate people doing a much better job than I ever could solving technical problems, leading technology or marketing, in sales and in managing product development.

That and the free snacks box.

What advice would you give to someone else considering starting up their own company?
I’d suggest they do a thought experiment. What would they say to somebody considering a career in scientific research? I reckon the two paths are pretty similar.

It’s a potentially a very satisfying career but it’ll take over your life and while you can contribute something very positive to science it’s unlikely that you’re going to get rich or win a Nobel prize at the end of it.

A lot comes down to what you want to get out of the experience. I like being able to do things as a startup rather than just discuss them with dozens of stakeholders in endless meetings. I like being able to work on the kinds of problems I love without having to answer to others. The downside is that your start-up’s responsibility to its staff and customers falls ultimately on you.

More broadly the advice I’d give is:

  • If you do decide to do it, think about a co-founder, you don’t need to go alone
  • … then don’t put off jumping in, there is never going to be a ‘good’ time.
  • Don’t assume that everybody else in the space knows what they’re doing. It’s possible succeed with hard work and luck, which is not the same thing.

If you could do it all again, would you?
Yes! Though I’d find co-founders. I wish the current team had been there from the start.

Don’t forget to check out Euan’s video interview on the Digital Science blog.

This is a guest post contributed by Paul Mucur – CTO at Altmetric.

Following on from Oliver’s recent post about the inner workings of Altmetric, I’d like to talk a little more about how we work on the development side of the company, and more specifically about how we’ve had to change our working practices as we’ve grown.

In the past year, we’ve had several new developers join the team and while we’ve been improving our infrastructure to cope with more sources and an ever increasing volume of mentions, we’ve had very different challenges scaling the team. Specifically, how can we successfully juggle the following:

More importantly, how can we do all that in a sustainable way?

When I first joined the company, we kept track of all the work we wanted to do (bugs to fix, features to develop) in a single Trello board. All work was arranged as cards in various columns such as “Unimportant”, “News”, “Pipeline”, etc. with “Doing” and “Done” at the end. However, there was one particular column which caught my eye: the ominously titled “Cabinet of Dreams”.

Cabinet of Dreams

This board contained all the various things we could pursue as a company and the Cabinet of Dreams in particular was our unfettered wish list.

As a new starter, the board was quite a bewildering thing but just because it wasn’t familiar didn’t necessarily mean it was bad. Cautious not to prematurely change something that was working, we kept a close eye out for potential issues and routinely asked ourselves, “what’s the problem with this approach?”

It wasn’t long before we noticed a pattern in our daily stand-ups: during their updates, people would frequently say “I’ve finished what I was working on. What should I pick up next?” This would require our founder, Euan, to weigh in with the next big priority. This would be fine except the team is not always in the same place at the same time and this critical dependency was quite a risky one.

Of course, it’s natural for a small company to be reliant on its founder but we grew increasingly conscious of our Bus factor: “the total number of key people who would need to be incapacitated to send the project into such disarray that it would not be able to proceed.”

The more we considered this, the more we identified places where information was concentrated within only a single person (perhaps the knowledge of a particular system or process) and trying to spread this information became an extremely important goal. Through code review and pair programming (largely following the GitHub Flow workflow for managing code changes), we tried to break these silos between developers but this larger product direction issue remained.

The other cause for concern was simply the sheer number of cards we had: after all, this was every idea we had, saved for posterity. I was reminded of Darren Taylor’s ”The Perils of the Large Backlog” in which he quotes Dan North:

How can you respond to change when you have 600 stories in your backlog?

If we were working through all these cards, how could we respond to feedback from our customers? The reality, of course, was that we never really intended to go through the whole board before responding to a customer so what purpose did it really serve?

Finally, the issue of sustainability: with priorities unclear, direction frequently needed and information concentrated unevenly, our pace was extremely inconsistent. Here, the principles behind the Agile Manifesto say it best:

Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

So how could we improve on these aspects? A simple trick is to just make things visible: in this case, instead of enjoying the infinite expanse of a board in a website, we decided to transfer that same board to a physical whiteboard in our office. Following advice from Dan Brown at the Kanban Coaching Exchange, we tried to mirror the virtual board exactly: after all, our board should reflect reality and covering up the ugly parts would benefit no-one.

So, armed with a lot of sticky notes and copious amounts of magnetic tape, we produced the following real-life version of our beloved board:

Our whiteboard with hundreds of sticky notes

The message was immediately clear: we had done a great job of deciding what we could do but now was the time to decide what not to do.

By maintaining all these different columns we were deferring making the tough choices but ultimately hurting the team. We needed to focus and to prioritise, to be realistic about the amount of work you can possibly do in parallel and ultimately enable everyone to be more autonomous.

Luckily, the annoyance of having several hundred sticky notes frequently cascading onto our desks quickly incentivised this change and we made those difficult choices. Jean took on the mantle of our Product Development Manager to constantly maintain and prioritise our new product backlog and, in concert with the team, we have improved our pace and moved from “what shall I do next?” to different challenges.

If you’re interested in methods of working in software development, I recommend attending the monthly Kanban Coaching Exchange as well as watching the recent video from Spotify on their engineering culture which talks in more detail about the autonomy of their teams.

This is a guest blog post written by Mads Bomholt, Customer Support and Data Coordinator at Altmetric. Mads is also currently working towards a PhD in 19th Century Imperialism at King’s College London. 

Scholars working in the humanities and social sciences are fundamentally changing their research practices to be more compatible with the behaviours which technology is imposing on us privately, socially and professionally. Being a PhD student in history I started reflecting how this is affecting my research and, possibly, a future career as an academic in the humanities.

In this blog post I am going to talk about how altmetrics feed into the wider developments of what is now termed ‘Digital Humanities’, as well as considering how they may be used in historical research now and in the future.

Digital Humanities can be defined as the application of computer based technology in humanities and social sciences research. Albeit a relatively new field, it has nevertheless seen whole departments being established at distinguished institutions including University College London, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Stanford University and my own; King’s College London.

Since 2000, the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London has been involved in generating more than £17 million in research income [1], giving an indication of how seriously these developments are going to affect humanities in the future.

Archives all over the world have digitized their databases, and sometimes even source material. The prime example of this is the British Library’s online Newspaper archive, which incorporates almost all published newspapers in Britain since January 1, 1710.

The process of digitizing has not been without difficulties. Handwritten sources in particular have meant that some of the digitization is either incomplete or ambiguous, and in cases even facetious. For instance, in digitizing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet the old writing of the letter ‘f’, looks like a contemporary ‘s’ led to some rather erotic alterations of the classical story. Suddenly, ‘Death had not “suck’d” the honey of thy breath’, but something far more inappropriate starting with ‘f’ [2].

Altmetrics feed into this process too. I asked myself the question: how could I as a PhD student in history use altmetrics? Being a slave to the notion that  ‘those who forget historiography are doomed to republish it’ [3], I have been through numerous articles and books addressing relevant (and irrelevant) issues to my thesis. Each time I have to assess and evaluate the piece; is it worth including? Does it need to be discussed in the text or simply referred to?

Here altmetrics enter the frame, at least at the article level. By finding which articles on a given subject get the most attention I can easily create a list of articles that are necessary to at least have a look at. Of course, attention is not the same as quality – nor relevance; if I were to write on a topic even remotely related to British Imperialism in the mid-19th century without mentioning Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher’s article, Imperialism of Free Trade (published in 1953 and currently showing an Altmetric score of 1), I would probably not pass the course.

Altmetric (my altmetrics provider of choice!) does not consistently track mentions made before 2011, and it appears at the moment that most historical journal articles are not being discussed much on social platforms. Such articles rarely spark much media attention compared to, for example, those published in medicine and astronomy. The lack of past data means that older yet still significant articles, such as the one above, are somewhat left out.

Whilst they may not be frequently applicable in the humanities and social sciences now, the changes that are developing within these fields now will eventually demand the implementation of more innovative approaches in order to benefit and improve the efficiency of research.

Altmetrics promise to be a powerful tool for future publications and those, including myself, who need to go through a vast historiography.

Before too long there will undoubtedly be social historians and other researchers who will look at the historical and social implications of digitalization and, of course, the World Wide Web. As a field concerned with social media and other online content as a measure of societal impact, altmetrics will likely demand significant attention from historians and other humanities and social science scholars for years to come.


1. http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/ddh/about/index.aspx

2. see blog.librarything.com/thingology/2010/12/

3. Paul K Macdonald Those Who Forget Historiography Are Doomed to Republish It: Empire, Imperialism and Contemporary Debates about American Power in Review of International Studies vol. 35, No.1, 2009 pp. 45-67  - a nice pun on the phrase ‘He who doesn’t know history is dommed to repeat it’

Summer is nearly here in London (at least that’s the party line, and we’re sticking to it) and with it comes conference season. The Altmetric team have been busy preparing for events all over the world, and in the next month or so you can catch us at:

SSP 2014, Boston, USA
28th – 30th May
Altmetric founder Euan Adie will be joining a panel to discuss ‘21st Century Assessment: How Authors, Publishers, & Readers are using Altmetrics‘ – or you can stop by the Digital Science booth (#53) to chat to any of the team and grab yourself some nice freebies.

SLA, Vancouver, Canada
8th – 10th June
Altmetric’s Head of Marketing Cat Chimes will be on hand at the  Digital Science booth to answer all of your altmetrics related questions.

ARMA, Blackpool, UK
9th – 11th June
Sara Rouhi, Product Sales Manager, will be attending to introduce Altmetric to research administrators from across the UK. Visit our booth to find out more about the tools available for your institution.

2014 International Open Repositories Conference (OR2014), Helsinki, Finland
9th – 13th June
Don’t miss out on the panel we’re hosting: ‘Altmetrics in practice: How are institutional repositories using altmetrics today?‘ on the 9th of June – featuring speakers from the University of Southampton and the University of Glasgow.

WebSci 2014, Indiana, USA
23rd – 26th June
We’ll be attending to catch up on all the latest altmetrics news and research!

CESSE Annual Meeting, Washington, USA
15th – 17th July
Join our session at CESSE to find out how Altmetric can offer benefits for your editorial teams, readers, and authors.

If you’d like to meet us at any of the events listed, feel free to tweet @altmetric, or send us an email at info@altmetric.com – we’d love to chat!

And last but of course not least, we should say a proper hello to Sara Rouhi, who joined us last week as Product Sales Manager. Sara will be based in Washington D.C.. Last week she was over in London to get up to speed on all things Altmetric, and enjoyed her very first team lunch!

photo (9)

This is a guest post contributed by Oliver Martell – a developer at Altmetric

In the last couple of months we’ve been busy shipping a lot of new product features and one of the main challenges as a new developer in the team has been understanding how all the systems work together to bake all those colourful doughnuts. So, today I will try to give you a simplified idea of what happens behind the scenes at Altmetric.

The core goal of our product is to track the online attention around scholarly literature. We want to help publishers, institutions and researchers to see how people are discussing their research articles. In order to achieve this we need to look for mentions to articles in different internet sources, such as twitter, facebook and news outlets. So the challenge here is; how can we tell if a tweet, a blog post or a news article is mentioning a research paper? This is where we take advantage of the hyperlinked nature of the web. We search inside the content of these digital expressions for links that lead to research articles.

Collecting data from internet sources, figuring out if a post is mentioning an academic paper and building the Altmetric score are just some of the tasks that we need to do in order to build the details page of an article. All this work is spread into different systems that collaborate in different ways to produce the final result that you get to see on the screen.

One of these systems, Weyland, maintains a curated list of the journal domains and news outlets that we’re tracking. This curated list contains domains like nature.com, acm.org, bmj.com and bbc.co.uk. We then use these domains in our collector systems to filter out the posts that are worth exploring in more detail.

The next part of the puzzle are the collectors. These are our little programs that interact with different APIs from internet data sources to get the actual tweets, comments, news and blog posts. All these types of social digital expressions are transformed into an internal uniform representation that we call post. The author’s profile is also stored in our profiles collection so that we can later use it to influence the Altmetric score and to show it in our details pages.

These posts and profiles are then processed by our mighty pipeline. The pipeline is our main system. All the collectors push posts to it, then the pipeline takes these posts and fetches the referenced web page links. After getting the content of a web page the system searches for things that look like references to articles – if it finds one then it means that we’ve found a mention. The article is now stored in our database so that we can later use it when we later get more mentions about the same article.

At this point in time we also start building our external representation of an article, which contains all its mentions, aggregated counts, demographics and geographical information. This representation along with its score gets updated every time the pipeline receives a new post from the collectors. These external articles are finally consumed by the web API and are later requested by the front-end system, which is in charge of serving the HTML pages that you see in our explorer and details pages.

If this sounds something you would like to help us build, join us!

Sarah MacLeod, graduate student at Dalhousie University

Sarah MacLeod

This is Part 2 of a special guest blog post by Sarah MacLeod, who has an MSc in Cardiovascular Physiology and Biophysics from Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada). Her article was selected to appear on the Altmetric blog, following the conclusion of a Interactions-style blogging project run by Dalhousie’s Department of Pharmacology and Altmetric (more details here).


Catch up on Part 1 of this post from last week.

Exercise Addiction: Passion or Problem?

Old New Year’s resolutions and the recent Sochi Winter Olympics may have you inspired to hit the gym. As a result, you may have also found yourself in the health food aisles or supplement stores, scanning the big tubs of protein powders. But be aware. Recently, several athletes failed urine drug tests after they unknowingly ingested a banned substance. The banned chemical in question is N,α-diethylphenethylamine (N,α-DEPEA), which has a similar chemical structure to methamphetamine, and it was recently discovered in a mainstream dietary supplement called Craze.

Craze, the 2012 new Supplement of the Year and a 2013 Pre-Workout Supplement of the Year nominee, is a pre-workout supplement used for increased alertness, energy, and weight loss. Its claim to fame is Dendrobex, also known as dendrobium orchid extract. This natural plant stem extract is comprised of several organic compounds from a class of chemicals called phenylethylamines. The class of phenylethylamine chemicals includes compounds known for their psychoactive and stimulant effects. Therefore, this natural ingredient was investigated as the source of N,α-DEPEA. Cohen et al. published an article in October 2013 in Drug Testing and Analysis where they studied a sample of the implicated supplement from three separate suppliers from both the US and Europe. Powerful and sensitive techniques were used to isolate the specific compound in question, and N,α-DEPEA was identified in all three samples. These findings were confirmed by studying the structure of the isolated compound. It was estimated that the 5 gram suggested serving would contain 21-35 milligrams of the potentially dangerous designer drug. This is not an insignificant amount, and therefore cannot be written off as a minor contaminant of the manufacturing process.

Though the exact pharmacological and toxicological effects of N,α-DEPEA are not all known, at the suggested dose it seems the compound may be producing the stimulatory effects characteristic of pre-workout powders. N,α-DEPEA was patented in 1988 by Knoll Pharmaceuticals for having psychoactive effects. Its mechanism of action may be the same as amphetamine and methamphetamine. Amphetamine and its related compounds act by changing the direction of pumps at the brain cell membrane. This effectively increases the amount of neurotransmitter in the cell causing a pump to move large amounts of dopamine out of the cell (this is the opposite of its normal role). Dopamine release stimulates the reward and motivation regions of the brain which can result in addiction. This is a potentially dangerous implication of N,α-DEPEA and its use in commonly acquired products.

While the jury is still out on the safety of Craze, and other dietary supplements for that matter, this article garnered a large amount of international attention (see Altmetric article details page). The findings were reported in a wide variety of news outlets, from general news sources such as USA Today, Epoch Times, and the Huffington Post, to those with specific target audiences, such as Business Insider, Medical Daily, and Runner’s World. Healthcare professionals (such as this sports dietitian) and the general public seemed to be focused on spreading awareness and feelings of shock. One tweet raised the obvious consumer surprise that N,α-DEPEA had never been tested in humans before if it was to be sold for consumption. This concern is also supported by Dr. Cohen, who said in a public statement released by the National Science Foundation that “the health risk of using supplements adulterated with a drug should not be underestimated.” This is indeed “scary stuff” and I’m sure all consumers are impatiently awaiting further testing results.


Do Your Research

The three articles described Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog post have brought to the foreground the controversial topic of what is legally required to be disclosed by producers in order to ensure consumer awareness and safety. While legislation is working towards holding businesses responsible for health concerns (such as in the tanning bed example), it is vital that the public consults the latest data on products they are using. In terms of sport supplements, a sport nutritionist and dietitian shared a website called Informed-Sport, and encouraged pre-workout supplement users to only use products tested and accredited by the sport anti-doping lab HFL Sport Science:

Another example of a contaminated supplement: http://t.co/talF8H7mdH .If you want a supplement, go for HFL tested: http://t.co/BrNWyqimrf

— N. Paraskevopulos (@eat2succeed) October 14, 2013

A common theme in the reactions from members of the public was that the “proof is in the peer-reviewed journal article”, and that they would trust evidence supported by scientific research. Therefore, it seems that consumers may have a gut feeling about the contaminant rumours or safety concerns, but they may not take serious precautions until there are scientific results to back up the claims. This highlights an important responsibility of the scientific world in the general, consumer population, as well as on social media, where safety information can reach a large amount of people in a short period of time.

This is a guest blog post by Laura Wheeler. She is the Community Manager at Digital Science.

LauraThe role of a community manager didn’t exist ten years ago, but with the advent of new tools and social technologies, we are changing how we interact and behave online, particularly in the way we digest news. My role is to tap into this active community of people online. It is not just to tweet about the awesome things Digital Science and our portfolio companies are up to, it’s to help foster an online community of scientists who we want to engage with.

It goes without saying that most people will at some point in their day check a social account, or read news content online.

Take a step back and think about how you find your new stories – major social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn certainly play a role in the consumption and sharing of news. Blogs can also be a quick, easy and efficient way to read up on the latest happenings that interest you. Mobile devices are also improving the way we interact online.

This behaviour certainly is no different for scientists and researchers who use social sites to talk, share and spread their science – the altmetric movement highlights the importance of these conversations – aiming to give a measure of the amount of attention science gets on social media.

We want to hear from researchers, interact with them, find out what their pain points are, and look at the ways we can help. Social media is just one of the ways we can do this – we want to follow where people go to get their news and be a part of this active community.

Most recently we released a concepts video, where we tried to imagine what the lab of the future would look like. In parallel to this thought leadership we also ran a social campaign asking researchers to tell us what type of technology they would like to see in the lab. This type of social interaction is key for us – first hand feedback from the people we want to engage with:

@digitalsci (easy one) smartphone app that photographs TLC plates, generates sketches of them and calculates RF values.

— Paul MacLellan (@insidecircles) January 24, 2014

Social media is a great vehicle to provide that thought leadership. Real-time interaction and customer feedback is valuable to us. Plus, social media breaks down the geographical boundaries – we can interact with scientists all over the world!

It’s also a great place to showcase some of the talent we have within Digital Science with presentations at conferences, guest articles, and media appearances from our staff. For now, my role is to help facilitate these activities and make sure we amplify our messages to the right channels, but technology is changing fast, so who knows what my role will look like in another ten years time…

So on that note, you can follow me on a Twitter where I can be found tweeting about social media and science, I’m @laurawheelers and you can also follow Digital Science @digitalsci. Finally, if you want to know more specifics about my career path, including some advice on becoming a Community Manager, you can watch my video interview on the careers website iCould.

Sarah MacLeod, graduate student at Dalhousie University

Sarah MacLeod

This is Part 1 of a special guest blog post by Sarah MacLeod, who has an MSc in Cardiovascular Physiology and Biophysics from Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada). Her article was selected to appear on the Altmetric blog, following the conclusion of a Interactions-style blogging project run by Dalhousie’s Department of Pharmacology and Altmetric (more details here).



The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife.

- David Ogilvy

The phrase “consumer awareness” brings to mind how incredibly fortunate most of us are to have an excess of choices at our disposal when shopping for products in every market, from local vs. organic vs. gluten-free foods to Samsung vs. Apple vs. Blackberry phones. The extensive availability of the Internet has also allowed the average consumer to search through the details and effectively compare their choices before making a purchase or signing on the dotted line. While the general public may now be more perceptive of the inspirations behind advertising and its effects, there are still many hidden secrets on the proverbial shelves. That’s where the scientific community comes in. Parts 1 and 2 of this post will cover a few interesting examples of how the scientific world has been able to uncover the dangers in well-known products, thereby helping to strengthen public awareness.


Operation Shed Light

Indoor tanning has been globally popular since the 1980s, and its use has only grown since then. The link between sun damage and skin cancers has often been discussed, and while a short questionnaire is given to consumers upon entering a salon to determine the time of exposure and strength of protective lotions to be used, business owners have not taken on extra responsibility to ensure safety. It is therefore up to the consumer to look after their own well-being and the scientist to sort through the lotion packages and protective goggles to find the truth.

An updated meta-analysis of the evidence connecting skin cancers and sunbed use was authored by scientists from the International Prevention Research Institute and European Institute of Oncology and published in July 2012 in the BMJ. The numbers were described in terms of relative risk, where the probability of the event when exposed is divided by the probability for the event when not exposed. The statistics translated to a 20% increased risk in developing cutaneous melanoma for those who were ever users of a tanning bed. This risk was doubled when tanning bed use started before the age of 35.

With such startling statistics, it’s not surprising that this paper received global attention, including coverage in a Cancer Research UK blog (see Altmetric article details page). On Twitter, the paper was shared by both the interested public and doctors. Colorado’s Eagle County Public Health account tweeted that “America needs to get over the idea of a ‘healthy’ tan”. A self-proclaimed Jersey girl also ironically tweeted that the evidence may mean that “we can ban those death traps”.

It appeared in this case that the Canadian politicians agreed with the doctors that the tanned look is just “not worth it”. Subsequent changes to laws in certain provinces made it illegal for minors to use tanning beds. With 30,000 to 40,000 cases each year of skin cancer in the province of Ontario alone, it is clear that at least in Canada, this research will be vital for preventing disease.


Variety is the Spice of Life

In March 2012, a “pink slime” byproduct was discovered in ground beef, marking an important transition in open knowledge and consumer behaviour. Not only did the U.S. Department of Agriculture make a new rule that packaged meat had to carry Nutrition Facts labels, but consumers have since been much  more diligent in checking ingredients. PepsiCo, Starbucks and Kraft (to name a few) have all started to “filter” their product ingredients to avoid bad publicity. While famous chef Jamie Oliver helped to make it public knowledge that some parts of franchise sold hamburgers were “washed” with ammonium hydroxide, it was actually a group from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio that had authored, 4 years earlier, a study in Annals of Diagnostic Pathology about questionable burger contaminants (see Altmetric details page).

In their study, pathologists Prayson et al. used routine techniques employed in tissue study to evaluate the condition of 8 brands of fast food burgers in order to test the consumer assumption that “the burger they eat is composed primarily of meat”. It is interesting to note that this study was a follow-up to one done on hot dog evaluation, where the wieners’ meat content was determined to be 2.9 to 21.2%. Similar to the hot dogs, meat content of the burgers was lower than would be hoped; between 2.1 and 14.8%. While about half of the burger was water (explained as either from the tissue itself or from the manufacturing process) there were a few conspicuous elements, including bone, cartilage and plant material. For some these other “natural” ingredients may be expected, however a quarter of the burgers also had Sarcocystis parasites.

The public’s reactions to the paper were strong. For an author of the science blog Byte Size Biology, the findings were shocking enough to title a blog post “Hamburgers are pathological”. Facebook was also flooded with shares of this paper by users ranging in age and affiliation, and even included posts from holistic health pages and chiropractor clinics. While one Twitter user claimed that “if replicated and confirmed” the evidence would be “disturbing”, other readers find eating connective tissue “gross!” with after one set of experiments and have resorted back to the “ignorance is bliss” mindset:

Dont eat it much but still filing under things wish I didn’t know MT @BFriedmanDC Fast food burgers have little meat http://t.co/75O3KZrxnY

— Megan McCloskey (@MegMcCloskey) July 1, 2013

Thanks to the Cleveland Clinic pathologists, carnivores got a very clear message: that meat may not be all that it seems.


Part 2 of Sarah’s blog post will continue next week.