Fires in the Amazon and Australia, a case of HIV cured, and the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, were all big headlines for science in 2019. This summary of the science that shaped 2019 from Nature covers a few more stories. There is not one clear metric to quantify the “biggest” story in science, but Altmetric creates a ranking based on the media (social and conventional) impact of scientific papers. I previously wrote about 2018’s Altmetric Top 100, and this year I take a look at the themes.
AI and Fake News
The top paper of 2019 was this description of a system developed at Samsung to create realistic video of talking heads from single images. The authors provided a video summary of the work, and the result is impressive and unsettling. AI image generation also took out the 5th slot with image generation.
While crossing the uncanny valley remains a challenge for visual effects artists, the strong emotional reaction to this paper is driven by a fear. As it becomes easier to fabricate content, it becomes harder to trust the media we consume. There is also the fear that we could become victims of these “deepfake” techniques. Fake news was the subject of the 51st ranked paper “Less than you think: Prevalence and predictors of fake news dissemination on Facebook” and the 58th ranked paper “Fake news on Twitter during the 2016 U.S. presidential election“. On fake stories making real news; the 44th ranked paper about the 44th President’s birth was pushed up the altmetric rankings as “The researchers avoided calling the subjects’ views ‘racist’, earning them a high-scoring Twitter roasting.”, highlighting how issues of race can drive a flurry of discussion on social media.
The world is on fire
As Climate change continues to worsen so do its effects. If you’re not familiar with the scale of the problem I recommend this briefing; Global warming 101. About 1 in 6 papers in the top 100 were on or about climate change, with 3 of the top 10. World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency has an authorship exceeding 10,000, stating that “Earth is facing a climate emergency”, and highlighting the disturbing gap between the scientific and political consensuses.
Just as health research makes up a huge share of scientific research projects, so too did papers on health make up a big share of the altmetric 100. Many of the papers featured are only surprising in the unwillingness of the public to conform to the recommendations. Vaccines work (and do not cause autism), exercise is good for you and most people need to do more, highly processed food and sugary drinks are bad for you, and eating only junk can lead to terrible health (including blindness).
In a moment of doctors showing that publications don’t have to be more complex than “check out what this guy just coughed up”, this cast of the right bronchial tree was coughed up and became this publication, ranking at 19th.
This highly discussed paper (74th) was retracted, demonstrating both that scientific papers (even in top journals) should be questioned, and that scientists are actively doing that questioning. The article relates to the He Jiankui affair that made headlines for the gene editing of human beings, however that work itself has not been formally published, and the scientist himself was sentenced to prison.
Scientists have fun too
“Joke” papers such as 8th ranked “Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma when jumping from aircraft: randomized controlled trial” and 61st ‘”Death is certain, the time is not”: mortality and survival in Game of Thrones‘ show that scientists (and critically, publishers) can have a sense of humour too.
Take Home Points
- With tools like google scholar and increasingly open access publishing, the scientific literature is becoming ever easier to consume.
- AI is becoming more powerful at image generation and manipulation, and will threaten the reliability of video footage as evidence.
- The climate has changed and the consequences are already being felt. Urgent action is necessary.
- Whilst advances in medicine are lessening the burden of diseases, educating the public to make good choices on vaccines, drug consumption, and nutrition would have an enormous impact on health.
- Publishers and reviewers have a sense of humour (requires further verification).