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Where did science go last year? PLOSBLOGS’ top 16 in 2016

Certain science categories and subjects dominate the content of our PLOS Blogs Network. Among these, basic research and its clinical translation, critically endangered creatures and habitats and the scientific controversy du jour typically make up the ‘bread and butter’ of the stories we publish as blogs. But, as happens in some years, in 2016 certain themes emerged to more sharply frame our daily changing science headlines; themes I would sum up under the three headers of:

  • public health under extreme pressure
  • gene modification 
  • meta-research — to address science’s reproducibility problem. 

More on which PLOSBLOGS’ posts hit hardest on these themes and reached the most readers in a moment.

First, some observations about our readers. In 2016, we conducted a survey to discern the demographics and content preferences of PLOSBLOGS’ readers — the first to be done in the five years since I’ve had the pleasure of managing this network. The results — from over 1000 respondents — confirmed PLOS’ working supposition that our blog visitors are somewhat unlike other popular science readers in that the majority (over 60%) are researchers themselves. At least a third of them are also published authors in our PLOS journals, as well as in other leading peer-reviewed journals.

As to what kinds of informal science material PLOSBLOGS’ readers prefer, our data shows they want in-depth analysis of newly published research along with informed commentary that delves headlong into science issues of the day. To serve this readership, and also provide insights for the many STEM students, clinicians, patients, journalists, and popular science enthusiasts who frequent our blogs, PLOS hosts a network of more than two dozen bloggers, including a mix of scientists and science writers who cover research in diverse fields. Together with six PLOS staff written blogs, last year this network produced over 500 posts, and received 2.3 million visitor sessions.

Here were some of the most popular and influential of these posts, arranged loosely by the aforementioned themes. They are our “Top 16 in 2016”.

Public health under extreme pressure

vaccines-690x320Our top traffic generating post of the year tackled Andrew Wakefield’s entry in anti-vaccine moviemaking and how the scientific community has aggressively responded to this public health threat. Read Beth Skwarecki’s Public Health Takes on Anti-Vaccine Propaganda: Damage Done, Challenges Ahead to get the whole story. On the same general topic, PLOS NTD’s co-EIC and frequent Speaking of Medicine blogger Peter Hotez makes the post-2016 US election public health stakes clear in Vaccinations, Vaccine Science and a New US President.

The 2016 Zika outbreak occupied many of our PLOS network bloggers who took on the dissemination and half_width_zikainterpretation of the latest research on Zika. Among the most widely read of these posts were: The more we know, the less we know: Zika virus edition by Atif Kukaswadia in Public Health Perspectives blog. Also, Zika Emergency Puts Open Data Policies to the Test by PLOS Medicine EIC Larry Peiperal and Peter Hotez. On the solution front, Gaetan Burgio contributed Where is and isn’t the science of Zika virus control? with an emphasis on experimental uses of genetically altered mosquitoes. And, by Australian physician Sarah Borg in Translational Global Health blog, the post Let’s talk about sex: Why the Zika outbreak is really about reproductive rights for Latin American women.

Genes and their modification

On the often frustrating (especially to scientists) subject of gene editing, I call your attention to a post that aims to reframe the genetic modification conversation away from marketing buzzwords in favor of best practices for communicating the scientific evidence. Picture1Plant science PhD student Erin Zess did just that in her cogent, “If ‘Are GMOs bad?” is the Wrong Question, what’s the right one? And how should scientists answer it?”

Also popular as a pairing of research progress and its legal implications: Progress and patents, a CRISPR news roundup in the PLOS Synbio Community blog.

One of our leading scientist-bloggers, geneticist Ricki Lewis, continued Hannah-014-690x320her much appreciated series in DNA Science blog on gene therapy, with a twin focus on the latest research and the brave children and families who volunteer to take part in attempts at its clinical translation.

Most read this year from Ricki are: Second Gene Therapy Nears Approval in Europe: Lessons for CRISPR? And Hannah’s 2016: From Curling Toes to Gene Therapy.

The meta in meta research

Self-correcting-768x548In the fast emerging science of research practices, Hilda Bastian’s Absolutely Maybe blog is a major resource. This year, Hilda’s most read post was Psychology’s Meta-Analysis Problem in which she summed up the key problem she found in her examination of ten non-therapeutic, non-imaging meta-analyses in psychology, writing, The risk of bias in the studies meta-analyzed was mostly unquestioned.” Also popular in this category was PLOS Biology Associate Editor Lauren Richardson’s comment in PLOS Biologue on changing views towards the primary metric used by researchers for demonstrating their study results are “statistically significant.” Read Lauren’s, Is the P-Value Pointless?

Also noteworthy for research authors, Measuring Up: Impact Factors Do Not Reflect Citation Rates in the Official PLOS BLOG.

Celebrating the ‘bread and butter’ of science


Basic research and its potential clinical applications are a constant theme for our PLOS Neuro Community blog editors, post-docs Emilie Reas and Giuseppe Gangarossa. Two examples, both featuring new research published in PLOS ONE, are Ketones to combat Alzheimer’s disease and Fighting addiction through the gut-brain axis…the future?

Image5-683x1024Researchers, like your average Facebook user, love to click on pics and videos featuring frisky cats. But, as we’ve found at PLOSBLOGS, our readers really do want more than cute in their animal stories. Our stats tell us that they’re quite partial to the science of animal cognition. Proof is found in the many thousands of views received by science writer Mary Bates for her post, Critically Endangered Hawaiian Crow Joins the Tool-Users Club in the PLOS Ecology Community blog. image_2617_1e-Carnufex-carolinensis-1-690x320Neither do our readers discriminate against scaly extinct creatures; witness the enthusiastic reception given to Jon Tennant’s The First Crocodile Ancestors, in PLOS Paleo.

We welcomed one new blogger to our network roster in 2016. Biology researcher/professor and science education reformer Mike Klymkowsky of University of Colorado, Boulder has shaken things up and gotten a lot of 576px-Flammarion-1-576x320attention for our SciEd blog with such posts as In an age of rampant narcissism and social cheating – the importance of teaching social evolutionary mechanisms and Recognizing Scientific Literacy and Illiteracy.

I’ve only scratched the surface with these top 16 of 2016, so I hope you’ll dive in and find many more gems. As always, PLOS Blogs Network depends for its success upon the generosity and curiosity of our contributors and readers, along with your commitment to go wherever the science takes you. Thanks for another great year. And, if you wish to blog, please send us a brief note outlining your interest and background at We’re especially interested in bloggers who can address climate science in ways that reach across the scientist-nonscientist divide — and science communication as a discipline in and of itself.

(Please accept my apologies in advance for squeezing in more top posts than the promised 16.)

Here’s to a productive and happy 2017!

Main featured image above “Science” by Animated Heaven/Flickr

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