An antibiotic found in previously uncultivable soil bacteria yielded the most buzzed-about paper of the year.

An antibiotic found in previously uncultivable soil bacteria yielded the most buzzed-about paper of the year.

Slava Epstein

Which studies got the most media buzz in 2015?

Scientists don't like to admit it, but they love attention from the media. Stories about their work raise their professional profile, leading to better grants and better jobs. And as both scientists and their funders move to ditch impact factor as the main metric for judging the value of published research, media attention has emerged as one of many alternative metrics.

One of the most prominent scoring systems is run by an outfit called Altmetric, now a division of the London-based publishing technology startup Digital Science. Rather than scoring journals by their impact within the scientific community, Altmetric scores individual articles based on buzz: stories in the media and references on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and even Wikipedia. And each December, the company releases a list of the top 100 buzz-generating scientific papers over the past year.

This year's buzziest studies were mentioned a total of 112,492 times in Altmetric's online sources. Contrary to the myth that the media gets most of its science stories from just a few traditional powerhouse journals, the top 100 papers were published in a broad range of 34 journals. Their authors hailed from 105 different countries, working together in 52 international collaborations. (You can download the data here.)

The number one story: "A new antibiotic kills pathogens without detectable resistance," published in January in Nature. "We didn't quite anticipate the media frenzy around the paper," says co-author Brian Conlon, a microbiologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "It's certainly a strange experience to see a photograph of bacterial cultures you took in the lab appear on the CBS evening news."

The attention attracted new offers of collaboration, but also challenges to the study's claim that bacteria may not be able to develop resistance to the compound. "This no doubt also irritated some people," says co-author Kim Lewis, also a microbiologist at Northeastern, noting that the pharmaceutical company that discovered and produces the compound, NovoBiotic Pharmaceuticals in nearby Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been sending samples in response to requests, such as "send me the compound and I will send you a resistant mutant.” Lewis says they are still waiting to hear back.

Some scientists had to put their work on the back burner to deal with the media deluge. "It was completely overwhelming, despite having prepared for weeks for it," says Brian Nosek, a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who led a massive replication of psychological science published in Science in August—No. 5 on Altmetric's list. He notes that having 270 co-authors helped. "A few of us did triage and directed requests to other members of the team. This was particularly effective for providing media contacts with colleagues that spoke their national language or were just in their region. On the most intense day, I probably spent 5 hours straight introducing journalists to other members of the team."

The easy story to tell based on failed replications was that "science is broken," Nosek says, but the most prominent coverage "did not shy away from the complexity. … Mostly, I was hugely impressed by the quality of science journalism."

Of course, media buzz isn't necessarily a measure of scientific merit. And some of the reporting that boosted the Altmetric score had nothing to do with the study. For example, No. 20 on the list: "A New Horned Dinosaur Reveals Convergent Evolution in Cranial Ornamentation in Ceratopsidae," published in June in Current Biology. A journeyman piece of paleontology to be sure, but what caught the media's attention was a marriage proposal in the footnotes.