These are the 10 most popular scientific papers everyone was talking about in 2018

Humans

Each year the London-based data science company Altmetric releases a ranking of the 100 most popular research articles of the past 12 months – based on their analysis of “online activity around scholarly literature”.

Instead of just looking at the number of academic citations and other stuff that researchers deem important within their own circles, here we have an interesting gauge of which studies the public was most interested in last year.

“This year’s list features papers published in 45 different journals, with the journal Science appearing more than any other single title (12 times),” writes Altmetric’s Inez van Korlaar on the company’s blog.

So, here are the top 10 papers from the Altmetric ranking, captured over the past year between 15 November 2017 and 2018.

10. The biomass distribution on Earth

In May, the world received the most comprehensive study of our planet’s living biomass ever completed, published in PNAS.

As it turns out, humans account for only about 0.01 percent of life on Earth, putting our outsized impact on this ball of rock in an entirely new perspective – you can read our summary of this research right here.

9. Global warming transforms coral reef assemblages

Published in April, this study in Nature revealed the true scale of damage that global warming has caused in the Great Barrier Reef.

The “surprising and alarming results” showed that recent mass bleaching events of this coral ecosystem dramatically changed parts of the reef structure, and provided the first record of surprisingly rapid coral deaths.

8. Complementary Medicine, Refusal of Conventional Cancer Therapy, and Survival Among Patients With Curable Cancers

In this cohort study of 1.9 million patients, published in JAMA Oncology, researchers discovered that people who use complementary medicine – stuff like herbs, acupuncture and the like – were more likely to refuse conventional treatments.

Sadly, they also found that this reliance on complementary medicine meant a 2-fold greater risk of dying, compared with patients who did not use complementary medicine.

7. Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic

In March, we learned that the awful collection of plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean now occupies an area three times the size of France, and contains some 1.8 trillion pieces of garbage.

This was the conclusion of a survey published in Scientific Reports, and we should all be disgusted with ourselves.

6. Dietary carbohydrate intake and mortality: a prospective cohort study and meta-analysis

As you can probably tell from the title, this piece of research, published in The Lancet Public Health in August, tried to glean how much carbs we should really eat for a long, healthy life. The team did so by looking into dietary data from nearly 15,500 adults.

Even though carb cutting is a popular method for weight loss, the results probably won’t shock you – just eat everything in moderation, and focus on plant-based whole foods. Duh.

5. Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study

Looking at 1.2 million people in the US yielded this team new insights into the link between staying physically active and lessening the mental health burden, something that’s not exactly a groundbreaking discovery, but is important nonetheless.

The results, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, revealed that any amount of exercise can make you happier, and given the US government has been practically begging people to do any exercise at all, it’s another great reason to just give it a go. At least walk briskly around the block or something.

4. Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene

Given that not a single climate study made it into last year’s top 10, it’s heartening to see that people seem to have paid attention to one of the most dire warnings from this year.

The bleak scenario of a ‘Hothouse Earth’, outlined in PNAS in August, is a blood-curdling tale of the kinds of irreversible Earth system processes human-caused global warming could kick into action, lest we act… yesterday.

3. Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016

Given that we messed up our planet and there’s no plan B, it’s no wonder we’re collectively drinking ourselves to death. That’s not just colourful language here, either.

In August, a global study in The Lancet revealed that for people aged between 15 and 49, alcohol is the leading cause of harm worldwide. We need a gin just to help us process this fact. Oh, wait…

2. The spread of true and false news online

Early this year, we finally had evidence for something we already suspected – social media (in this case Twitter) is spreading falsities faster than truth, and with a broader reach to boot, according to a study in Science.

Worst of all, this is not happening due to the infamous bots, as much as we’d like for that to be the case in order to preserve a shred of faith in humanity.

1. Mortality in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

In September 2017, a hurricane laid waste to Puerto Rico. The damage to infrastructure was plain to see, but the death toll was not, due to inadequate government data. In the aftermath of the most harrowing disaster in the island’s modern history, controversy about the total number of victims just added insult to injury.

The team behind this study in the New England Journal of Medicine used a new, survey based approach for estimating the mortality rate of this disaster, concluding that it was more than 70 times the official estimate.

However, this paper isn’t actually the report that triggered an official revision of the death toll – that work, led by researchers from George Washington University, you can find here. As of August 2018, the death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico is estimated to be 2,975 people, as opposed to the original count of just 64.

You can peruse the entire Altmetric top 100 of 2018 here.

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