On Top of the World

(January 13th, 2015) What has been your scientific highlight of 2014? Many journals, publisher, bloggers and Lab Times editors gave thought to this question. Here are some of their answers.

Year-end lists are a blast for everyone – readers and editors alike. And there really is no shortage of top fives, top twenties or even top hundreds. Nature presents its top 10 Cutest Animals in Science 2014, then there’s Science’s Breakthrough of the Year: The Top 10 Scientific Achievements of 2014 or the Guardian’s Best Science Books of 2014.

We, here at Lab Times, also had a couple of highlights during the past year. One, of course, was the publication of our 50th issue in July. Amongst others, researchers like Nobel laureate Tim Hunt, EMBO director Maria Leptin and veteran neuropharmacologist Geoffrey Burnstock talked about the past, present and future of science in Europe.

Football always plays a big role here at the LT headquarters, but it did so even more last summer. There are also football fanatics at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, as our reporter Alex Reis found out. Conducting, the “most bizarre interviews” she has ever done, Alex learnt that yeast is best at predicting the outcome of football games during World Cups.

When it comes to methods, one of our favourites we introduced you to last year are synthetic biology devices based on Boolean logic. Scientists are increasingly applying computer logic to life forms, programming bacteria such as E. coli with genetic circuits. Or as LT reporter Steven Buckingham put it in his article, “while computer programmers try to get the bugs out of their programmes, synthetic biologists are trying to get programmes into bugs”.

In contrast to our very subjective views, other year-end lists are based on hard facts. Just like Altmetric’s 2014 Top 100. Taking into account published news stories, blog posts, tweets, peer reviews, weibo posts, Facebook posts, Google+ posts, Reddit posts and videos, Altmetric came up with a list of academic papers “that received the most attention online”. Frontrunner with e.g. 3,801 tweets and 301 news stories is the controversial Facebook study: “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks”. In third place, the Weizman Institute study on artificial sweeteners inducing glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota spawned 3,303 tweets, 200 Facebook posts and 127 news stories. Unsurprisingly, two more controversial articles show up in the top 10. One of the infamous and now retracted STAP cell article occupies the fourth spot, while the pooping dogs do their business at spot 5.

Commenting on Altmetric’s top 100 in the Scholarly Kitchen blog, David Crotty, senior editor at Oxford University Press, writes: “These year-end lists serve as great reminders that altmetrics isn’t quite there yet. The kitchen sink approach, including nearly anything that can be measured, still needs refinement. The big questions remain - what do measures of attention really tell us, does this in any way correlate with importance, quality or value to society, and is there something else we should be measuring instead?”

Perhaps a bit more insightful when it comes to judging a study’s impact is PLoS ONE’s top 20 articles of 2014 list. They based their “final countdown” on the Article-Level-Metrics ratio: PDF downloads/HTML ratios. The winner? A study suggesting that texting while walking “could negatively impact the balance system” and hazard fellow pedestrians. Among PLoS ONE’s top 20 are also regenerating lizard tails, deep-frozen leeches, an origami-inspired paper microscope and smart Neanderthals.

Last but not least, in cooperation with The Scientist, Retraction Watch compiled a list of the top 10 “most memorable” retractions of 2014. One of those memorable retraction isn’t hard to guess – it’s the STAP cell scandal that resulted in two retractions in Nature. Also on the list is a 2012 study titled “Cardiomyogenesis in the aging and failing human heart” by a group of Harvard heart specialists led by Piero Anversa. An investigation by Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital had confirmed that data were “sufficiently compromised”. What made this case memorable was the fact that Anversa and a colleague filed suit against Harvard, claiming the investigation damaged their career opportunities. “This year, stories about scientific retractions were dominated by big numbers - 60 at once in one case, 120 in one fell swoop in another - as well as the eyebrow-raising practice of researchers submitting fake peer reviews, often ones they themselves had written,” Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky summarise.

Many highs and also a few lows made 2014 an exciting year for science. Surely, 2015 will have more, perhaps unexpected, breakthroughs, fascinating findings and intriguing insights in store.

Kathleen Gransalke

Picture: www.publicdomainpictures.net/George Hodan

Last Changes: 02.23.2015