In 2013, people were really interested in radioactive fallout from the Fukushima disaster, the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet, and the first pictures ever taken of chemical bonds. That’s according to London-based metrics company Altmetric, which this week released its list of top 100 scientific papers that attracted attention in social media. (Those three topics mentioned previously are the top 3 papers on the list, in order).
“Many of the papers received a huge amount of attention because they related to current events, reflected interesting scientific findings, and or were just plain quirky,” Altmetric wrote in a blog post. But, they cautioned, “do keep in mind that this top 100 list indicates which articles received the most buzz, but says nothing about the quality of the research.”
Altmetric factors in both news stories and social media chatter in determining just how popular a scientific paper is. The top-scoring paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports by a pair of Japanese researchers, examined the radioactive cesium contamination of freshwater fish in the areas surrounding the Fukushima nuclear plant. Altmetric found more than 8,300 tweets about the paper that were potentially seen by more than 4.5 million people. Most of the social media traffic, unsurprisingly, was centered in Japan.
Nearly half of the papers had some connection to human health; a handful are focused on the environment. Food and diet is a recurring theme throughout the list, whether it’s the aforementioned superiority of a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and light on bread and red meat; a close look at the benefits of nut consumption (funded in part by nut companies); salmonella lurking on restaurant menus; reassuring news about egg consumption.
Another theme that also crops up is the influence of online activities on our lives. Altmetric’s list includes papers in this vein comparing marriages between couples that met online and offline, a close examination of relationships and social networks on Facebook, and how people of different ages, genders, and other demographics talk differently in Facebook messages.
Then of course, there are the papers that defy trends, and are just simply cool: physicists dissecting moshing at heavy metal concerts; the discovery that dung beetles use the Milky Way to guide themselves; and a surge of brain activity in a person at death’s door.
Our favorite science paper of 2013 on Altmetric’s list is one that hits the sweet spot of food related and oddball. In the American Journal of Medicine this past November, a trio of Mississippi researchers analyzed the amount of actual meat in fast-food chicken nuggets. Their conclusion is succinct (“chicken nuggets are mostly fat, and their name is a misnomer”) and their title is humorous without trying too hard (“The Autopsy of Chicken Nuggets Reads ‘Chicken Little’”).