“Low T” and Prescription Testosterone: Public Viewing of the Science Does Matter

testosterone_grayOn January 29th 2014, researchers from UCLA, NCI, and Consolidated Research, Inc. published an observational study in PLOS ONE detailing increased cardiovascular risks associated with men taking testosterone therapy. Only three days later, on January 31st, this study in combination with another, published in JAMA in November 2013 with similar findings, triggered a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Drug Safety Communication and evaluation that is currently ongoing. Since then, lawsuits against testosterone drug makers have been filed in both the US and Canada, and the FDA has set up a joint advisory committee who will meet this fall to evaluate potential health risks associated with testosterone therapies to determine whether any regulatory measures are required.

Why all the commotion around one or two scientific articles? The authors of the PLOS ONE study report that men aged 65 years and older who filled a testosterone prescription had double the risk of heart attack within three months. The study is based on a sample of 55,000 men from a dataset of enrollees in a health market database during the years 2006-2010. For younger men with pre-existing heart disease, the increased risk was two- to three-fold higher within the same period.

For matters relating to public health, this study is both relevant and controversial due to the skyrocketing of testosterone prescriptions to men, an industry now valued at $2 billion USD. Unfortunately, testosterone is often prescribed without a blood test for the medical diagnosis that warrants its use (hypogonadism), as it is also claimed to have other health benefits, including improved sex drive, mood, energy levels, and anti-aging effects.

Testosterone molecule

Testosterone molecule

While it’s clear that this PLOS ONE article impacted the actions of regulatory agencies and issues pertaining to public health, we wondered whether this influence was reflected in the paper’s article-level metrics (ALMs). Or, as Roli Roberts asked in a recent PLOS Biologue post, “how do you know when you’ve published a great paper?” Or even a good paper?

As it turns out, this paper did have an interesting, atypical trajectory post-publication. Rather than gaining traction first in the media, riding a flurry of social media activity, and then eventually attracting the attention of health regulators, immediate action was taken by the FDA within days of publication. Concurrently, the article received an explosion of media coverage within a week post-publication, including news pieces in the New York Times: Well Blog, NPR: Health News, and The Wall Street Journal MarketWatch, among others, and was continuing to receive coverage in the BBC News and NPR as late as April 2014. All of this coverage was recorded by our media tracking tool, which can be found under “Related Content” here.

Is the influence of this article captured in its ALMs? If we glance at individual measures, the article had ~ 21,000 views in the first month of publication, and currently has well over 36,000 HTML page views, 17% of which have resulted in PDF downloads. If we compare this view number to that of all other PLOS ONE articles published in the same timeframe, we see that this article is ranked 12th most-viewed. Additionally, a PDF download percentage of 17% is roughly average for a PLOS ONE article, where a higher percentage may indicate increased scholarly usage relative to other, more mainstream types of usage. On social media, this article was shared well over 100 times, which is substantial but less than occurred for other articles published since, with a few papers currently at well over 1000 shares.

However, if we examine citations and post-publication commentary seven months since publication, the study has already accumulated 20 citations, more than any other article published in this timeframe. In addition to accumulating citations, the article has prompted researchers to call for additional, more definitive studies: an article published in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology cited the PLOS ONE and JAMA articles and declared an urgent need for large clinical trials of testosterone. Last but not least, the article has stimulated significant post-publication commentary from readers who have analyzed and critiqued the methodology and characteristics of the cohort, spurring further discussion and research,   and effectively moving post-publication peer review in a forward direction.

Therefore, the value of this article may not lie strictly in its views, shares, citations, or even saves, or any combination or calculation thereof, but instead in its open access visibility to the public, healthcare providers, federal agencies, and media outlets. Anyone, anywhere in the world with Internet access can read this article and its surrounding discussion and then decide for themselves how to respond and react, and that alone is worth more than any level of metrics combined.


Finkle WD, Greenland S, Ridgeway GK, Adams JL, Frasco MA, et al. (2014) Increased Risk of Non-Fatal Myocardial Infarction Following Testosterone Therapy Prescription in Men. PLoS ONE 9(1): e85805. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0085805

Vigen R, O’Donnell CI, Barón AE, et al. Association of Testosterone Therapy With Mortality, Myocardial Infarction, and Stroke in Men With Low Testosterone Levels. JAMA. 2013;310(17):1829-1836. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.280386

Piszczek J, Mamdani M, Antoniou T, Juurlink DN, Gomes T (2014) The Impact of Drug Reimbursement Policy on Rates of Testosterone Replacement Therapy among Older Men. PLoS ONE 9(7): e98003. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0098003


Rx image from Ano Lobb on Flickr.

Testosterone image from Benjah-bmm27.

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Does the Fox Say, “I Love Living in the City?”

flickr fox Steve K CCBY


Most wild animals move away from areas heavily populated by humans, noisy cars, and sparse natural habitat. Some, however, thrive in the city, learning to hustle to provide for themselves and their families just like the rest of us. Urban wildlife like raccoons and turkeys roam my neighborhood in the San Francisco bay area, stealing food from the compost heap and perching on top of administrative buildings. Other parts of the world see monkeys, moose, or even foxes in their urban centers. Recently, researchers teamed up with citizen scientists to investigate the distribution of urban red foxes in Great Britain. They published the results of their survey in an article in PLOS ONE, “Changes in the Distribution of Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes) in Urban Areas in Great Britain: Findings and Limitations of a Media-Driven Nationwide Survey.”

Keeping track of animal populations in cities is important for wildlife management and public health, but it is by no means an easy task. Cities are crazy quilts of fences, private residential property, public areas, and commercial property, all with varying degrees of accessibility that can make research on animal distribution a challenge. For these reasons, the authors of this study recruited volunteers to help with the fox survey. Utilizing the eyes and attention of citizen scientists allowed the scientists to evaluate a wide urban area without stomping through everyone’s gardens.

The authors recruited participants using television programs about foxes, with each program including information about how to participate in the fox survey. Participants were asked to submit records and locations of fox sightings with photos via a website. Citizen science makes research like this possible, but it does have drawbacks, including that the  data quality relies on the accurate reporting of many untrained individuals who are much more likely to report positive data points (such as the presence of a fox in their area) rather than negative data points (an absence of foxes), which can skew results.

To improve data reliability, researchers double-checked for errors in location and date. They focused on determining how widespread the foxes were, which is easier to gauge with this method, rather than how densely populated the foxes are, which would be more difficult with potentially skewed data.



The results of this study indicated that, compared to their distribution in the 1980s, foxes have further spread out over Britain, with sightings reported in 91% of 65 cities that were previously thought to have few or no foxes. It is unclear why they have expanded their colonization of British urban areas, but according to the authors they do seem to prefer private backyards to public green spaces. More fox sightings were reported in cities with higher human population densities, as can be seen in the graphic above, but the researchers noted that this result could easily be due to increased reporting and not necessarily related to a higher number of foxes. All in all, more research is needed to determine why the distribution of red foxes in Britain is changing, and whether the fox population is increasing or just spreading out. In the meantime, the authors have made their data available for anyone to have a look.


Scott DM, Berg MJ, Tolhurst BA, Chauvenet ALM, Smith GC, et al. (2014) Changes in the Distribution of Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes) in Urban Areas in Great Britain: Findings and Limitations of a Media-Driven Nationwide Survey. PLoS ONE 9(6): e99059. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0099059

Flickr image “Oops, I woke up the Fox asleep by my backdoor” by Steve K

Fox sightings map figure is from the article

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Supporting Hepatitis Awareness with Open Access Hepatitis Research

World Hepatitis Day was July 28th, and PLOS ONE is observing the day by raising awareness with a few of our many open access articles on viral hepatitis that we’ve published in the past year. According to the World Hepatitis Alliance, despite hepatitis being a widespread illness and having close to the same mortality rate as HIV/AIDS, it seems to lack the same level of awareness among the general population. Below is a sampling of research articles about hepatitis to help broaden our awareness on this important day, including research on how over the counter pain relievers can impact vaccination, on infection of infants born to mothers with hepatitis, and on reinfection and clearance of hepatitis C in people who inject drugs. For more background information on this disease, check out this intro to the hepatitis viruses on the World Hepatitis Day website.


Vaccination and Pain Relief

Sometimes vaccinations can cause soreness at the vaccination site and low grade fever. Over the counter (OTC) paracetamol, also known as acetaminophen—the main active ingredient in pain-relieving products like Tylenol—is sometimes used before or after vaccination to prevent or treat this pain and fever. Researchers have previously shown that taking paracetamol during hepatitis B vaccination makes it less effective in babies, and the authors of this PLOS ONE study sought to determine if the same might be true for young adults 18 years old or older receiving the vaccination. In this randomized, controlled clinical trial, researchers compared three groups: one group was given paracetamol before vaccination, one group was given paracetamol after, and the third group received no paracetamol. The results showed that the vaccinated adults experienced modest suppression of their immune systems and lower production of antibodies if they received paracetamol before being given the vaccine, but not if they received it post-vaccine. Due to concerns about reduced effectiveness, the authors recommend further investigation into the timing of taking paracetomol to treat any hepatitis B vaccine side effects.

Hepatitis virions

Hepatitis virions


Infants Born to Mothers with Hepatitis B in Cameroon

The World Health Organization recommends vaccinating infants against hepatitis B when they are born to mothers with the disease, and a program to do just that began in Cameroon in 2007. PLOS ONE authors in this study tested pregnant women in North Cameroon between 2009 and 2010 and found that 20% of the women tested positive for hepatitis B even though most of them exhibited no symptoms. Since Cameroon is a high risk area where hepatitis B is common, this study supports previous research and provides further support for the WHO recommendation in favor of routine hepatitis B vaccines at birth for children of at-risk mothers.


Hepatitis C Cell Embroidery Art, Flickr


Hepatitis C Clearance and Reinfection in People Who Inject Drugs

Researchers have previously shown that 20-40% of people infected with hepatitis C fight off and clear the virus from their body without any medical intervention. This does not mean, though, that these individuals are immune to reinfection. Researchers in Australia report nine confirmed and 17 possible cases of hepatitis C reinfections in 188 drug-injecting study participants in this PLOS ONE study. Additionally, many of those who were re-infected did not clear the virus as they did the first time, suggesting that immunity is incomplete and supporting previous research. The authors therefore suggest public health campaigns may help to inform people who inject drugs about the risk of reinfection.

For more hepatitis research and information, have a look at some of our other articles here.



  1. Flickr image: all in a day’s work by Dawn Huczek
  2. Image of hepatitis virions by E.H. Cook, Jr. from the CDC Public Health Image Library is in the public domain.
  3. Flickr image: Hepatitis C Cell Embroidery Art by Hey Paul Studios


Doedée AMCM, Boland GJ, Pennings JLA, de Klerk A, Berbers GAM, et al. (2014) Effects of Prophylactic and Therapeutic Paracetamol Treatment during Vaccination on Hepatitis B Antibody Levels in Adults: Two Open-Label, Randomized Controlled Trials. PLoS ONE 9(6): e98175. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0098175

Ducancelle A, Abgueguen P, Birguel J, Mansour W, Pivert A, et al. (2013) High Endemicity and Low Molecular Diversity of Hepatitis B Virus Infections in Pregnant Women in a Rural District of North Cameroon. PLoS ONE 8(11): e80346. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080346

Sacks-Davis R, Aitken CK, Higgs P, Spelman T, Pedrana AE, et al. (2013) High Rates of Hepatitis C Virus Reinfection and Spontaneous Clearance of Reinfection in People Who Inject Drugs: A Prospective Cohort Study. PLoS ONE 8(11): e80216. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080216

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If at First You Don’t Succeed, Sit Back and Listen


Few of us remember how easily we learned language as children. Although the acquisition wasn’t always graceful then—‘awry’ never sounds the same way aloud as the way I read it in my head— using our primary language as an adult is as habitual as tying shoelaces and seemingly as instinctual as smiling. Given how involuntarily we adults use our primary language, it’s shocking how difficult learning new languages as an adult can be. The authors of a recent PLOS ONE paper postulated that the very functions we develop as our brains mature as adults may be what hinder us from mastering language the way a child does. We might, in fact, be “trying” too hard.

Researchers have shown in previous studies that adults outperform children in tasks that require attentional focus and effort. This is because the regions of the brain associated with these abilities—the prefrontal and parietal cortices—develop more slowly, and as a result, these abilities become stronger as we age. In other words, adult brains develop abilities that help us “try harder.” These same capabilities may, however, interfere with our capacity to learn some aspects of language as adults, like the tricky networks that underlie grammar.

To test the limits of our adult brains, the authors of “When it hurts (and helps) to try: the role of effort in language learning” tested participants on how well they learned an artificial language. In the first experiment, participants were instructed to simply listen to the word stream. In the second experiment, participants were told to identify patterns and categories within the artificial language.

The researchers stimulated “effort” in the second experiment by tasking participants with a series of learning drills. Learners pressed buttons to indicate when they thought they had mastered a series of words or a grammar pattern. On the other hand, participants in the first group were explicitly distracted from learning. These participants colored during the experiment.

After the experiment, researchers scored both sets of participants on their ability to identify words, categories of words presented (for example: nouns), and the correct order of words in test sentences.

Based on the results of the test, the participants who were told to learn the language did not outperform the participants who merely listened in all categories. The “learners” were better than the “listeners” at identifying specific words of the artificial language, but both “learners” and “listeners” were equally successful in indicating the order patterns of words in test sentences. When it came to learning categories of words, only the listeners were significantly better than chance. The authors concluded that trying to learn may be a detriment to participants in this aspect of language learning.

Although fully developed prefrontal and parietal cortices endow adults with many advantages (think the ability to plan, reason, and problem solve, among others), according to the authors, these same adult brains may hinder us from learning some aspects of language. To become masters of the murkier depths of grammar, we may want to tap into the more intuitive methodology employed by children. In the meantime, we adults will continue to struggle with the differences between ‘who’ and ‘whom,’ ‘further’ and ‘farther,’ and the best way to retain complex information presented by grammar.

Citation: Finn AS, Lee T, Kraus A, Hudson Kam CL (2014) When It Hurts (and Helps) to Try: The Role of Effort in Language Learning. PLoS ONE 9(7): e101806. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101806

Image 1: Exercise Plays Vital Role Maintaining Brain Health by Saad Faruque

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Not Just a Pretty Face: Island Poppies Defend With Prickles

PoppyAlthough the vibrant, waifish petals of the poppy may appear inviting to the casual observer, a closer look reveals a pricklier message: Stay away! To discourage plant eaters like insects and birds from biting into their leafy appendages, many plant species protect themselves with defense mechanisms, like tougher leaves, distasteful latex, and armor made of prickles. Developing these defense features is part of a plant’s natural growth throughout its lifetime. Some plants, however, are able to activate additional protection when faced with attacking herbivores. The authors of a recent PLOS ONE paper investigated these defense mechanisms in two species of poppy currently found in Hawaii, where natural herbivores have long been extinct. The authors’ results reveal that island poppies may have more “nettle” in the face of simulated adversity than previously predicted.

The authors chose two species of poppy for testing, Argemone glauca, a species native to Hawaii, and Argemone mexicana, a species originally hailing from the North American continent and a recent inhabitant of the Hawaiian islands. Both species come pre-equipped with permanent features that may function as defense strategies. However, permanent defenses are costly to maintain for a plant: They divert energy away from other functions, like reproduction and growth, and are therefore an energy investment for the plant. To combat the cost of maintaining a full suite of permanent defenses, some plants respond to attacks from plant eaters only when they occur by activating additional defenses, known as inducible defenses. Unlike defense features that develop throughout the course of a plant’s lifetime, also known as constitutive defenses, inducible defenses are not permanent, only prompted by specific need.

In this study, the researchers simulated the need for additional defenses by subjecting the two species to various “attacks” to see how the poppies would respond. Plants were assigned to one of four random treatment groups:

  1. The control group, which received no treatment
  2. The damage group, where the authors clipped off portions of the leaves
  3. The Jasmonic acid group, where researchers sprayed the leaves with a harmful solution that inhibits growth
  4. And the combination group, where authors defoliated plants first and then sprayed them with Jasmonic acid

The researchers then allowed for two new leaves to grow to ensure that the plants had an adequate amount of time to respond.

Although neither species developed additional leaf toughness or produced more natural latex in response to treatments, both species exhibited increased prickle density on new leaves that grew after treatment. To evaluate prickle density, the authors harvested new leaves and counted all the new prickles on the surfaces of the leaves, excluding prickles found along the leaf edge. They also quantified the leaf area and performed statistical analyses to identify patterns in the various groups.

The authors found that Hawaiian native A. glauca responded more intensely to treatment by developing significantly more prickles than its continental North American counterpart, A. mexicana. The authors report that prickles for A. glauca were 20x more dense and 2.7x higher than A. mexicana.

Plant defenses are selected for over time due to snacking pressures from herbivores. On the Hawaii islands, however, natural herbivores of A. glauca, such as flightless ducks and beetles, are now extinct. The lack of natural predators for island plants has given rise to the idea that island plants have ‘gone soft’ over time. The authors consider A. glauca’s robust response to external attacks evidence that island plants may be better defended than previously thought.

Although it may be impossible to determine whether these island defenses have been selected for by herbivores of the past, no longer present, the inducibility of prickles in A. glauca and A. mexicana demonstrates that these poppies have the mettle to fight back against attackers and snackers.

For more on how herbivores and plants interact, check out this EveryONE blog post on snail mucus.

Citation: Hoan RP, Ormond RA, Barton KE (2014) Prickly Poppies Can Get Pricklier: Ontogenetic Patterns in the Induction of Physical Defense Traits. PLoS ONE 9(5): e96796. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0096796

Image 1: Agemone glauca by Forest and Kim Starr

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PLOS launches Responding to Climate Change Collection

Today PLOS ONE launches the Responding to Climate Change Collection. At its centre is a paper published last December, “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’:  Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature” by James Hansen and colleagues. The paper presented a disruptive call to action on climate change through cohesive, unified steps to reduce fossil fuel emissions to pre-industrial era levels.

Responding to climate change

Image Credits (clockwise from top left): Matt Rudge, Flickr.com; Vik Walker, Flickr.com; Vera Kratochvil, PublicDomainPictures.net; NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The publication was accompanied by a call for papers for the PLOS ONE Collection, focussing on research that examines the practicalities of reducing fossil fuel emissions; returning the Earth to a state of energy balance; and climate and conservation management strategies that counter the impact of climate change and preserve natural habitats. Areas covered in the call for papers include atmospheric chemistry, alternative energy research, geoengineering, science policy, behavioural psychology, and ecosystem and habitat conservation.

“Minimizing human-made climate change requires insight across a broad science and policy spectrum, and ready access to knowledge as understanding is gained.  As an Open Access journal, PLOS ONE provides a vehicle to achieve that,” says Hansen.

The launch of the collection coincides with the publication of the first submission to the call. “Climate Exposure of US National Parks in a New Era of Change” by William B. Monahan and Nicholas A. Fisichelli of the U.S. National Park Service describes a variety of recent extreme climates in some of the nation’s most visited parks. Evaluation of data for 289 natural resource parks administered by the National Park Service shows that parks are overwhelmingly at the extreme warm end of historical temperature distributions. The authors call for intensive climate science education, and inclusion of the general public, in order to help steward parks and park resources in the face of the changing climate: “As climate shifts further outside of the historical range of variability, resistance strategies will likely become less effective and extremely difficult management decisions – with input from the public and stakeholder groups – will be required.”

The Collection also includes 8 related papers that have been published in PLOS ONE since the call was issued. The papers cover such diverse topics as stratospheric aerosol geoengineering, energy potential of bioenergy cropping systems and the impact of climate awareness on dietary choices of young adults in Finland.

Grand Canyon - Luca Galuzzi

Grand Canyon National Park has recently experienced extreme high temperatures compared to its historical range of variability and may require new management strategies to manage resources that are sensitive to changes in temperature. Image Credit: Luca Galuzzi CC BY-SA 2.5 – www.galuzzi.it

The “Responding to Climate Change” Collection remains open for new submissions. Few areas can benefit as much from the force of Open Access as climate change research: the combination of public, scientific, and governmental interest with the mounting misinformation, unsubstantiated opinions, and unsourced data make public access to original, well-reported, and peer-reviewed climate change research of utmost importance.

PLOS ONE’s wide scope and broad publication criteria make it a perfect venue to publish and collate relevant articles in these vastly differing areas of research into one place. Our hope is that by encouraging and facilitating further research, replication, and sharing of both positive and negative results, this Collection will become a catalyst for continued climate research and policy formation.

Image 1: (clockwise from top left) Matt Rudge, Flickr.com; Vik Walker, Flickr.com; Vera Kratochvil, PublicDomainPictures.net; NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Image 2: Luca Galuzzi CC BY-SA 2.5 – www.galuzzi.it

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What’s in a Look? For Wolves, Maybe Everything


WolvesIt’s been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. They allow us to communicate feelings across a room, direct the attention of others, and express emotion better than words ever could.  The importance of eye contact in non-human species is well known—we’ve all heard that you shouldn’t stare a bear or angry dog in the eyes—but we don’t know a whole lot about how gaze is used between individuals of the same species. Japanese researchers took on this topic in a recent PLOS ONE article, focusing specifically on how eye contact and communication is affected by eye visibility and facial patterning around the eyes of canids.

Their research observed 25 canid species, comparing variations in facial pattern and coloring to observations about their social behavior and evolutionary history. They found that canines may use facial markers to either highlight or de-emphasize their eyes. Species with more distinguishable eyes tended to live and hunt in groups, where gaze-communication facilitates the teamwork that is necessary to bring down large prey and stay safe. Those with camouflaged eyes were more likely to live alone or in pairs, where communication with other members of their species may not be needed in the same way.

facial area maps

Using photos of each species, the authors analyzed the contrast between five areas of the canine face: pupil, iris, eyelid margin, coat around the eyes, and facial area including the eyes, as shown in the figure above. They measured contrast assuming red-green colorblindness of the observer (fun fact: canids cannot see the full spectrum of color). Species were then grouped according to the visibility of their eyes, described in the figure below:

  • Group A contained species with easily visible pupils and eye placement
  • Group B contained species with camouflaged pupils but clearly defined eye placement
  • Group C contained species with fully camouflaged eyes and pupils

group types

The authors found the strongest correlation between eye visibility and living and hunting behavior. More species in Group A, like gray wolves, live and hunt in packs, whereas more species in Groups B and C, like the fennec fox and bush dog, live and hunt alone or in pairs. Species in Group A also spend significantly more time in “gazing postures,” with their sight and body directed at another animal, an action that accentuates their focused attention to other members of the group. The genetic similarity between species was not as useful in explaining these differences, with A-type faces found in 8 of 10 wolf-like species, and in 3 of 10 red fox-like species. The authors suggest that A-type markings developed independently once these groups had evolutionarily split.

Lighter iris coloring is thought to be an adaptation to ultraviolet light in many species, similar to variations in human skin pigmentation. To determine whether this adaptation could explain the variation seen in canid iris color, the researchers compared the eye coloring of three wolf subspecies from Group A originating from arctic, temperate, and subtropical regions, to see if any differences in their lighter coloring could be attributed to geographical origin. They found that iris color did not vary significantly between the subspecies, suggesting that it may have developed to facilitate communication and not as an adaptation to specific geographical locations.

When the authors reviewed social behaviors, they found a number of social species with B- and C-type faces, the groups normally found alone or in pairs. These species are known to use acoustic or other visual signals, like a howl or the flash of a white tail, to communicate with their comrades. This allows them to skirt one possible disadvantage of gaze-communication: when prey can also identify and follow a gaze, and realize they’ve been targeted.

Gaze communication may be an important tool for other canids, including our own companions, domestic dogs. Previous studies have shown that domestic dogs are more likely to make direct eye contact with humans than wolves raised in the same setting. This could mean that after thousands of years of cohabitation, dogs see us in socially useful ways that wolves never will. Luckily for us, that means we get to see this.

Citation: Ueda S, Kumagai G, Otaki Y, Yamaguchi S, Kohshima S (2014) A Comparison of Facial Color Pattern and Gazing Behavior in Canid Species Suggests Gaze Communication in Gray Wolves (Canis lupus). PLoS ONE 9(6): e98217. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0098217

Images 2 and 3: Figures 1 and 2 from the article

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PLOS ONE Publishes its 100,000th Article

PLOS ONE publishes its 100,000th article – a pretty major milestone for a journal that has seen its fair share of momentous events, and a perfect opportunity to reflect on this journey.

 PLOS ONE began seven and a half years ago. On the day of its launch – as has become the legend in the PLOS offices – there was an earthquake in the Bay Area, heralding the tremors that would be felt through the science world as a result of the disruptive innovation underway. PLOS ONE was an aspirational idea for PLOS from the very beginning: our founders always intended to launch a multi-disciplinary, broad-acceptance journal that would shake off the vestiges of the print tradition – no limits to the scope of research, number of pages, or potential growth.

And grow it did. After two years PLOS ONE had published over 4,000 articles, by four years it was the largest journal in the world, and now seven years after launch has published 100,000 articles. The revolutionary model of PLOS ONE has been emulated the world over: virtually every publisher now has its own equivalent “megajournal.”

PLOS ONE is now a major force in the scientific literature. The top 2% PLOS ONE papers (by number of views) have been collectively viewed nearly 39 million times, cited on Scopus over 80,000 times, bookmarked by Mendeley readers over 150,000 times, tweeted over 59,000 times, cited 2,800 times on Wikipedia, and recommended over 300 times on F1000 Prime.

The enduring value of PLOS ONE to the scientific process lies in the solid union between the three following factors: speed to publication, high standards of science, and unrestricted scope of research.

Speed to publication:

Faster time to publication was the founding principle of PLOS ONE. It doesn’t just entail going from submission to publication more quickly (although that is also important). It means dramatically reducing the time from an author’s decision to publish their findings to the time those results appear in public. That time is often years in the old system of review, where subjective opinions of significance and scope lead to unnecessary rejections and resubmission to different journals. With PLOS ONE, where scientific rigor alone is assessed, this time window shortens to a few months.

High standards:

PLOS ONE instituted rigorous standards from the start. As the volume exponentially increased and the quality of the submissions became more variable, these checks became more important and more rigorous. For every paper the journal staff (over 100 strong, including 14 editors) now check each of the following before a manuscript is sent for review:

  • Competing interests
  • Financial disclosures
  • Quality of English language
  • Ethical approval for animal experiments
  • IRB approval for human experiments
  • Protocols and CONSORT for clinical trials
  • PRISMA for systematic reviews and meta-analyses
  • Cell line provenance
  • Field sample provenance
  • Humane endpoints in animal studies
  • Data availability
  • Plagiarism

The care that we take in reporting and oversight is rooted in PLOS’ commitment to this editorial responsibility.

Because of these checks, every PLOS ONE citation on a researcher’s CV shows that their work has reached high standards of reporting and oversight – something that matters a great deal to funders and institutions as the need for reproducibility becomes increasingly a part of their overall mission. This is an area where we feel journals can take a lead: high standards of reporting are the best way for the scientific community to regain the trust of the public and politicians in the wake of the recent spate of failures in replicating high-profile discoveries.

Unrestricted scope:

So many of the delays in sharing results are a result of journals putting unnecessary restrictions on the scope of the research they are willing to publish. Journals often withhold the release of negative findings because they are likely to be cited less, and will therefore lower their impact factor. Or they exclude papers purely due to the application of disciplinary boundaries. In this digital age, with no space restrictions on what can be published, such artificial limits only impede the flow of information. At PLOS ONE, we have thrown out these notions and will consider vital research across all subject areas (even seemingly strange and multi-disciplinary).

A heartfelt 100k thank you

The impact of PLOS ONE on scientific publishing has been tremendous and revolutionary. The world of scientific communication is a different place because of it, and that is something PLOS and its entire community of collaborators should be proud of.

The extraordinary PLOS ONE Editorial Board, reviewers and authors – who believed in the PLOS mission to accelerate research communication and gave their own time to review, edit and revise manuscripts – were critical to this transformation and share in this milestone. To each and every one of them PLOS ONE is eternally grateful.

So here’s to the 100,000th PLOS ONE article. Though thrilled to have reached this milestone, we are even more excited to see where the next 100,000 will lead.

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Magnifying Power to the People with the Foldscope

The microscope holds a place on the short list of inventions that have changed the world and revolutionized our understanding of science. Microscopes are crucially important public health tools, allowing workers to identify pathogens and correctly diagnose the cause of illnesses. As educational tools, they can excite and engage students, revealing a world invisible to the naked eye. And, as many people who’d love a microscope but don’t have one can tell you, they are also expensive. Millions of doctors, health workers, and patients worldwide lack the resources to benefit from this vital tool, and millions of students have never seen a microscope before. In a dramatic step to address this problem, researchers from Stanford University have designed ultra-low-cost microscopes built from an inexpensive yet durable material: paper. They recently published their designs and data in PLOS ONE.

Foldscope template

Meet the Foldscope. Borrowing from the time-honored tradition of origami, the Foldscope is a multi-functional microscope that can be assembled much like a paper doll. Users cut the pieces from a pattern of cardstock, fold it according to the printed lines, and add the battery, LED, and lens, and−voilà−a microscope. Foldscope schematicClick here to watch a video of how one is assembled. Some of their coolest features are as follows:

  • Foldscopes are highly adaptable and can be configured for bright-field and dark-field microscopy, to hold multiple lenses, or to illuminate fluorescent stains (with a special LED).

Foldscope Configurations

  • They can be designed for low or high powers and are capable of magnifying an image more than 2,000-fold.
  • They accept standard microscope slides, and the viewer can move the lens back and forth across the slide by pushing or pulling on paper tabs.
  • Users can focus the microscope by pushing or pulling paper tabs that change the lens’ position.
  • Foldscopes are compact and light, especially when compared with conventional field microscopes. They also weigh less than 10 grams each, or about the weight of two nickels.
  • They are difficult to break. You can stomp on them without doing much damage, and they can survive harsh field environments and encounters with children.

Stepping on FoldscopeWhat’s the total cost, you ask? According to authors, it’s less than a dollar.  At that price, it’s easy to imagine widespread use of Foldscopes by many who previously could not afford traditional microscopes. In this TED Talk, Manu Prakash demonstrates the Foldscopes and explains his hopes for them. The authors envision mass producing them and distributing different designs optimized for detecting the pathogens that cause specific diseases, such as Leishmaniasis and E. coli.  They could even include simple instructions for how to treat and prepare slides for specific diagnostic tests or provide pathogen identification guides to help health workers in the field make diagnoses.  This is just one way in which the ability to see tiny things could make a huge difference in the world.

Related links:

Low-Cost Mobile Phone Microscopy with a Reversed Mobile Phone Camera Lens

Community Health Workers and Mobile Technology: A Systematic Review of the Literature

Citation: Cybulski JS, Clements J, Prakash M (2014) Foldscope: Origami-Based Paper Microscope. PLoS ONE 9(6): e98781. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0098781

Images: Images are from Figures 1 and 2 of the published paper

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Music, Language, and the Brain: Are You Experienced?

Have you ever thought about everything that goes into playing music or speaking two languages? Musicians for example need to listen to themselves and others as they play, use this sensory information to call up learned actions, decide what is important and what isn’t for this specific moment, continuously integrate these decisions into their playing, and sync up with the players around them. Likewise, someone who is bilingual must decide based on context which language to use, and since both languages will be fairly automatic, suppress one while recalling and speaking the other, all while continuously modifying their behavior based on their interactions with another listener/speaker. All of this must happen quickly enough for the conversation or song to flow and sound natural and coherent. It sounds exhausting, yet it all happens in milliseconds!

Playing music or speaking two languages are challenging experiences and complex tasks for our brains. Past research has shown that learning to play music or speak a second language can improve brain function, but it is not known exactly how this happens. Psychology researchers in a recent PLOS ONE article examined how being either a musician or a bilingual changed the way the brain functions. Although we sometimes think of music as a universal language, their results indicate that the two experiences enhance brain function in different ways.

heat map

One way to test changes in brain function is by using Event Related Potentials (ERPs). ERPs are electrical signals (brain waves) our brains give off immediately after receiving a stimulus from the outside world. They occur in fairly predictable patterns with slight variations depending on the individual brain. These variations, visualized in the figure above with the darkest red and blue areas showing the most intense electrical signals, can clue researchers into how brain function differs between individuals and groups, in this case musicians and bilinguals.

The ERP experiment performed here consisted of a go/nogo task that is frequently used to study brain activity when it is actively suppressing a specific behavior, also called inhibition. In this study, the authors asked research participants to sit in front of a computer while simple shapes appeared on screen, and they were to press a key when the shape was white—the most common-colored shape in the task—but not when purple, the least frequent color in the task. In other words, they responded to some stimuli (go) and inhibited their response to others (nogo). This is a similar task to playing music or speaking a second language because the brain has to identify relevant external sensory information, call on a set of learned rules about that information, and make a choice about what action to take.


The authors combined and compared correct responses to each stimulus type in control (non-musician, non-bilingual) groups, musician groups, and bilingual groups. The figure above compares the brainwaves of different groups over time using stimulus related brainwave components called N2, P2, and LP. As can be seen above, these peaks and valleys were significantly different between the groups in the nogo instances. The N2 wave is associated with the brain’s initial recognition of the meaning or significance of the stimulus and was strongest in the bilingual group. The P2 on the other hand, is associated with the early stages of putting a stimulus into a meaningful context as it relates to an associated behavior, and was strongest in the musician group. Finally, the authors note a wave called LP wave, which showed a prolonged monitoring response in the bilingual group. The authors believe this may mean bilinguals take more time to make sure their initial reaction is correct.

In other words, given a task that involved identifying a specific target and subsequently responding or not responding based on learned rules, these results suggest that musicians’ brains may be better at quickly assigning context and an appropriate response to information because they have a lot of practice turning visual and auditory stimuli into motor responses. Bilinguals, on the other hand, show a strong activation response to stimuli along with prolonged regulation of competing behaviors, likely because of their experience with suppressing the less relevant language in any given situation. Therefore, despite both musicianship and bilingual experiences improving brain function relative to controls, the aspects of brain function they improve are different. As games and activities for the purpose of “brain training” become popular, the researchers hope this work will help with testing the effectiveness of brain training.

Citation: Moreno S, Wodniecka Z, Tays W, Alain C, Bialystok E (2014) Inhibitory Control in Bilinguals and Musicians: Event Related Potential (ERP) Evidence for Experience-Specific Effects. PLoS ONE 9(4): e94169. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094169 

Images are Figures 1 and 2 from the article.

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