2020 was certainly a strange year for research. Covid-19 dominated most of the headlines and it’s easy to understand why. It’s not everyday a virus sends the entire world into a full blown pandemic that’s continued for over a year and counting. Nevertheless, 2020 was still a massively significant year for research.
The pandemic required certain fields to really flex their muscle and attempt to produce extremely important research at a phenomenal rate. Never before have the general public been so captivated by the day-to-day publishing of scientific labs. R-numbers and p-values have made their way into standard conversation, and the spotlight is still well and truly fixed on the scientific community as a whole.
With this in mind, this article is going to look at some of the most talked about research produced throughout the year of 2020. These papers were pulled from Altmetric. Altmetric tracks how people are talking about research. Instead of just looking at how often a paper gets cited by other scientists, or how strong the results of the paper are, it looks at the conversations happening about the research. This can include anything from news articles to Twitter mentions!
Let’s get started, shall we?
The PartyLab Top Ten
10. Remdesivir and Chloroquine Effectively Inhibit the Recently Emerged Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in vitro
At number 10 we have the first of our Covid-19 related papers. In this letter to the editor, the research team discusses the use of five FDA-approved drugs and two broad spectrum antiviral drugs in treating Covid-19 in conditions outside of a living organism (in vitro). Their findings led them to suggest that both Remdesivir and Chloroquine could be highly effective in helping control infection in human patients suffering from the disease.
This paper was one of the first to propose methods to actually help control the virus using pre-existing drugs. As such, it caused a massive stir across the world. Hundreds of news stories and almost 10,000 tweets show how much discussion this particular piece of research caused
9. RETRACTED – The Association Between Early Career Informal Mentorship in Academic Collaborations and Junior Author Performance
Before we discuss this paper, we need to acknowledge that it is currently retracted as of the 21st of December 2020. The editor’s note on the publishing site reads as follows:
“Readers are alerted that this paper is subject to criticisms that are being considered by the editors. Those criticisms were targeted to the authors’ interpretation of their data that gender plays a role in the success of mentoring relationships between junior and senior researchers, in a way that undermines the role of female mentors and mentees. We are investigating the concerns raised and an editorial response will follow the resolution of these issues.”
First off, we’d like to commend the editorial team for their reaction to the criticisms of this paper. Publication is a privilege, not a right, and it’s refreshing to see a huge publisher like Nature remaining strong about these issues.
However, we’re still going to discuss this paper due to the conversations it caused worldwide. The authors studied the role of mentors in science. They wanted to see the effect of the quality of mentorship on the impact of younger scientists papers following being mentored. They found that the impact of the papers were directly predicted by the quality of the mentor. The area which warranted retraction and investigation was the claim that more female mentors was actually leading to a decrease in post-mentoring paper impact.
Despite this, the paper still caused huge amounts of conversation (controversy usually does) with the study being the subject of over 14,000 tweets!
8. It Is Time to Address Airborne Transmission of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
In the next of our pandemic related papers, this paper urges the medical community at large to recognise the research surrounding the transmission of Covid-19 through the air. This paper was published at a time when the idea of airborne transmission wasn’t universally accepted to be true. This paper put forward extremely solid data outlining the dangers and giving important ways we can all minimise risk, including better ventilation and airborne infection controls.
The timing of this paper (published in early July, 2020) was very important. It was released around the time a lot of countries were beginning to exit lockdown measures and, as such, was key in ensuring people understood the steps they could take to make the transition a bit more safe.
With over 1,700 news stories on this paper alone, it’s clear to see how much discussion it generated worldwide.
7. A Mountable Toilet System for Personalised Health Monitoring via the Analysis of Excreta
This extremely creative paper looks at the role a “smart-toilet” can have in analysing and improving people’s health. By using a number of different technologies, including pressure and motion sensors, the toilet can analyse urine and stool samples with a performance comparable to trained medical professionals! The authors make the argument that typical ways of monitoring health long-term don’t work well within a person’s day-to-day life. The smart-toilet offers a useful solution to this problem.
Innovative technology is always a surefire way to start conversation, and the smart-toilet certainly didn’t fail to deliver. Generating over 14,000 tweets alone, this paper more than captivated the general public!
6. Phosphine Gas in the Cloud Decks of Venus
This fascinating paper examines the atmosphere of Venus in an attempt to explore chemical conditions not seen on Earth. The clouds around Venus are extremely acidic, very different to our own atmosphere. The research team reported the presence of Phosphine gas in the atmosphere, which shouldn’t be possible given what we already know about the atmosphere surrounding Venus. Theories for its presence proposed by the research team include either unknown chemical production, or biological production from life-forms
See why this paper was so heavily discussed now? Although we’re extremely far from concluding extraterrestrial life exists there, it’s certainly one plausible explanation for this paper’s findings. With over 1,000 news stories, it seems plenty of other people share our interest in this research!
5. RETRACTED – Hydroxychloroquine or Chloroquine with or without a Macrolide for Treatment of COVID-19: a Multinational Registry Analysis
Another paper which resulted in a full retraction, this research gained notoriety after it claimed treatment with Chloroquine and Hydroxychloroquine (see no. 10 in our list above) had no benefit to patients suffering from COVID-19. However, when they weren’t able to access data to allow a full third-party review they were forced to retract the paper.
The controversial paper amassed over 1,600 news stories and over 40,000 tweets!
4. Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1
Another highly impactful paper on Covid-19, this research discusses how long the virus can last outside of a human host. They examined a variety of different materials – aerosols, plastic, stainless steel, copper, and cardboard. The virus survived for 3 hours in aerosols, 4 hours on copper, 24 hours on cardboard, and 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel.
These results were extremely important in our understanding of the disease. Before this, there was little knowledge of how Covid-19 could spread outside the human body. This research provided concrete evidence of how long it could remain on different surfaces, which led to more informed practices surrounding health guidelines.
Over 3,400 news stories and 30,000 tweets shows that this research spread globally and caused a huge amount of important conversations.
3. Dying in a Leadership Vacuum
This editorial from the New England Journal of Medicine gave a scathing commentary on the leadership (or lack thereof) shown by the United States government during the Covid-19 pandemic, and called for them not to be re-elected. Labelling the now former political leaders as “dangerously incompetent,” this piece made an impassioned cry for the public of the USA to use their power to vote these people out of officer for the way they “recklessly squandered lives and money” while facing no legal consequences.
With almost 50,000 tweets about this piece, it’s safe to say that conversations were definitely started by this piece. And, following the victory of Joe Biden in the American presidential race, the editorial seems to have succeeded in its purpose.
2. Effectiveness of Adding a Mask Recommendation to Other Public Health Measures to Prevent SARS-CoV-2 Infection in Danish Mask Wearers
This intriguing study set out to see how much protection a face-mask gave to people against COVID-19 in areas where social distancing was in place, but people didn’t typically wear masks. The results suggest that masks don’t actually provide as much protection as previously thought,as they didn’t reduce infection rate by more than 50% in the tested community. However, the study did not assess whether masks could reduce transmission of the virus from the mask wearer to other people, which is important to note.
This paper caused a considerable amount of discourse worldwide, with almost 100,000 tweets being made about it! Considering it goes against what a lot of us thought to be true about masks, this makes a lot of sense.
And finally, the most discussed paper of 2020 according to Altmetric…
1. The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2
This paper sought to clear up where the Covid-19 virus came from. Some groups suggested that the virus could have been engineered in a lab. This paper gives conclusive evidence that this could not have been the case. This was extremely important at a time when conspiracy theories around the virus were rampant across the internet. This paper puts forward scientifically backed theories as to how the virus came to be, and explains in detail how they came to the conclusion that it was not engineered by humans.
Unsurprisingly, this paper was discussed across the world at large! Over 83,000 tweets and close to 1,500 news stories contributed to making this Altmetrics most discussed paper of the year.
So, it’s clear to see that Covid-19 certainly dominated the conversations we all had about research last year. Hopefully 2021 will bring a welcome end to our discussion of it for all the right reasons. What’s interesting to us, is that despite one topic dominating the list, there’s still a wide variety in the types of research being carried out. It goes to show that solving any big issue requires a multi-disciplinary approach with many different areas coming together to lend their respective expertise.
If any of you are interested in how these papers got ranked, Altmetric gives them all a score based on how many times theory appeared in discussion pieces online throughout the year. Different formats have different weights (a blog post is worth more than a tweet for instance) to try and make it as true a reflection of the discussion around the work as possible. Typically, the more in-depth the method of discussion is, the more weight it’s given in the scoring.
Below we put together a chart to show the scores of the individual papers in this list. You can see exactly how they ranked against each other. We also linked each paper throughout the list. If you’re new to reading scientific papers but want to check some of them out in more detail, we have a guide on how best to go about reading a scientific paper from the beginning here.
We hope you enjoyed our look back on the most discussed research of 2020. If you did, let us know in the comments below! You can also share our work and start a discussion of your own about everything we spoke about. And of course, if you want to stay up to date on all our work feel free to follow us on Instagram and Twitter. Don’t forget to sign up to our newsletter too – “The Lab Report.”