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PLoS ONE Media Highlights of 2009

Pete has already rounded up some of the many exciting events in the PLoS ONE year in his Review of 2009, but there were so many new developments that we needed a separate post to summarise some of our news and blog coverage in 2009.

You can read more about PLoS ONE papers in the news via the Media category of this blog and our Media Archive also lists much of the news coverage for many of the papers published in PLoS ONE since our launch in 2006.

As over 200 of our papers were covered by the international press and bloggers in 2009, it hasn’t been easy to choose, but here are some of the highlights from PLoS ONE’s year of headlines (in roughly chronological order). As with all PLoS articles, you can see how many times each one has been downloaded (and blogged about, bookmarked, rated etc) by clicking on the ‘Metrics’ tab at the top of the article.

PLoS ONE paleontology articles proved to be of frequent interest to the media this year, right from the start, with some of the most widely covered papers including: Andy Farke’s paper on combat in Triceratops, Philip Gingerich’s report of two 47.5 million year-old whale fossils, including a pregnant female, and Leon Claessens’s article on respiration and flight mechanics in Pterosaurs. Other articles that made the headlines in January and February included Julian Finn’s study on dolphins’ culinary (or, at least, cuttlefish handling) skills and a study by Oxford University researchers on the potential use of the game Tetris to reduce post-traumatic flashbacks.

Clickstream Map of Science (Fig. 5 from PLoS ONE e4803)

In March, Johan Bollen’s article, Clickstream Data Yields High-Resolution Maps of Science, was published; as well as featuring prominently in the news, Figure 5 from the paper now appears on the t-shirts available to buy from the new PLoS store. In other news that month, Michael Singer and colleagues reported a case of self-medication in the woolly bear caterpillar and Michael Coble’s study confirmed, via forensic DNA testing, that skeletal remains of two individuals discovered in Russia in 2007 belong to the two missing children of the last Tsar of Russia (the Crown Prince, Alexei Romanov and one of his sisters).

Another historical mystery was solved in April with the publication of a paper about the Habsburg kings of Spain. The researchers used genetic evidence to show that the high frequency of inbreeding (mating between closely related individuals) was a major cause for the decline of the dynasty with the death of King Charles II in 1700. In the same month, Cristina Gomes reported the long-term exchange of meat for sex among chimpanzees—male chimps that share the meat gained from their hunting expeditions were found to mate twice as often as other males.

Darwinius masillae (from Fig. 2 of PLoS ONE e5723)
Darwinius masillae (from Fig 2. of PLoS ONE e5723)

One of the biggest news stories of the year followed the publication of a paper describing an extremely well-preserved, 47-million-year-old primate fossil, formally named Darwinius masillae and nicknamed “Ida.” We rounded up some of the news and blog coverage of the paper in earlier blog posts and with over 70,000 views of the full scientific article, Ida is still being discussed more than six months later. The Darwinius paper wasn’t the only PLoS ONE paper to make the news in May, however; a study reporting a 4,000-year-old case of leprosy and a paper on the commonness of data fabrication and falsification among scientists also generated major news coverage.

Scientometrics also featured in PLoS ONE’s June media coverage in a study that reported that the reliability of research findings published in the scientific literature decreases with the popularity of the field. June also saw the publication of one of the year’s many psychology and behavioural neuroscience papers to attract media interest: a paper by Bettina Pause and colleagues, which investigated empathy induced by the “smell of fear” (the lucky study participants got to smell sweat samples produced by students about to take an exam and those about to exercise—only the former appeared to activate the part of the brain associated with empathy).


Diamantinasaurus matildae (Artwork by Travis R. Tischler)

PLoS ONE showed no signs of disappearing from the press or the blogosphere over the summer months. In July, Scott Hocknull and colleagues reported the discovery of not one but three new species of dinosaur in Queensland, Australia; the dinosaurs, nicknamed Matilda, Banjo and Clancy, brought an end to Australia’s dinosaur dearth. In Evan Wolff’s paper, meanwhile, he and his colleagues reported that Tyrannosaurus rex might have died out because of an infectious disease similar to trichomonosis. Other popular studies from the summer included: a cell-phone based microscope application with implications for the diagnosis of infectious diseases in the developing world, research on the impacts of climate policy on natural habitats in the US, and the rise in hospital deaths during August—when trainee doctors start work.

October could have been Albatross Month for PLoS ONE with widespread news coverage about both Kentaro Sakamoto’s article on the interactions between black-browed albatrosses and a killer whale, captured on video by a small camera attached to the birds, and Lindsay Young’s on plastic ingestion by Laysan albatrosses in the Pacific. October’s other popular studies included: the discovery of a new species of giant, orb-weaving spider, a report of fellatio in bats and the revised understandings of both Archaeopteryx (now thought to be less avian and more dinosaurian) and of the dinosaurs Stygimoloch and Dracorex (now thought to be juveniles of Pachycephalosaurus). Four of these articles were highlighted by the New York Times.

One of the last dinosaur papers published in 2009 was by Herman Pontzer and colleagues, who studied 14 species and reported that many dinosaurs were probably warm-blooded like present-day birds and mammals rather than cold-blooded like present-day lizards. Later in November and just in time for Thanksgiving came Kevin Hall’s article on the environmental problems posed by America’s growing food waste production.

PLoS ONE papers continued to feature prominently in the news throughout December, with studies reporting: the results of an ancient DNA analysis of the Tomb of the Shroud in Jerusalem, the better than expected performance of orphanages in terms of the healthcare and emotional wellbeing of the children who occupy them, and the discovery in California of a 13,000-year-old tree that may have survived climate changes by cloning itself.

It is also worth mentioning that throughout the year we ran a “blog post of the month” competition to recognise some of the high quality blog posts that are being written about our articles. The list of winners can be found in these posts.

These papers barely scratch the surface (in variety and scope) of the 4,400 articles that were published in PLoS ONE this year and we look forward to publishing many more papers in 2010—regardless of whether they make the headlines.

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