I Know What You Think: Collective Intelligence in Online Communication

Have you ever wondered what factors may shape the interactions we have in online chatrooms? With the advent of the Internet 20+ years ago, the ways in which we communicate have drastically changed, allowing us to easily interact nonverbally or anonymously. Whether it’s in a chatroom, email thread, or an online forum, most of us have taken part in some form of group communication on the Internet. Maybe, unbeknownst to us, we became a part of the group’s collective intelligence, a form of group intelligence that can surface after collaboration and competition among individuals in the group. But some scientists are wondering, how can we measure the ability of others to communicate in a group, and how can we quantify the effectiveness of a group?

Two traits that make us “distinctly human” are our abilities to empathize and to interact well in social settings with others. These traits are usually measured in face-to-face situations, and may be more difficult to measure online, away from in-person social cues.

One factor that correlates to overall collective intelligence is “Theory of Mind” (ToM), or the ability of one individual to understand the mental state of another and recognize it as distinct from their own; what some may consider “mind reading.” In a recent PLOS ONE study, MIT researchers tested the hypothesis that ToM, which can be used to predict collective intelligence in collaborative face-to-face tasks, can almost equally predict collective intelligence in online collaboration. One individual’s ability to “read” the behavior of another individual can help contribute to successful communication and overall group intelligence. More than that, this ToM ability may exist even where verbal communication is prohibited, and may contribute to successful communication within an online group.

The researchers in this study recruited around 270 individuals to participate in a series of tasks online or in person. For individual tests, the participants completed the Reading the Mind in the Eyes (RME) exercise, which requires an individual to estimate the mental state of a face based on an image they are given. This test was performed in addition to several online tasks, some group-based, and some individual.

Figure 1

The researchers structured the online tasks similarly to previous in-person studies of collective intelligence. The group tasks for the individuals online included solving a Sudoku puzzle using a group chat function (see image above), unscrambling words, performing memory tasks, or typing large text pieces with the help of the group. The individual personalities of each participant were also used to contextualize their unique place in the group dynamic.

This group data, in combination with individual RME results, provided a statistical factor that was used to measure the “general intelligence” among the online group. The amount of communication, and the ToM abilities of the group, were strongly correlated with high collective intelligence.  More importantly, the medium of communication (online) did not hinder any abilities to contribute to group tasks or to interpret the emotions of others.

In an age where we rely on the Internet for rapid communication, it can be comforting to know that our collective intelligence may not diminish. These interactions could be as productive and as stimulating as many of the group conversations we have on the phone or in person. The ability to communicate and perceive group dynamics may transcend the limitations of the Internet and allow us to continue to understand and collaborate well with our fellow human.

Citation: Engel D, Woolley AW, Jing LX, Chabris CF, Malone TW (2014) Reading the Mind in the Eyes or Reading between the Lines? Theory of Mind Predicts Collective Intelligence Equally Well Online and Face-To-Face. PLoS ONE 9(12): e115212. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0115212

Image 1: Official GDC by Jesse Knish Photography

Image 2: Figure 1 from the article

Category: Aggregators, Fun, Images, Internet/Blogging, Topic Focus | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Flight of the Bats: Exploring Head Shape and Aerodynamics

bat

It’s a bird…it’s a plane…it’s a bat! All three may be soaring through the sky, but their shapes vary greatly, which affects their aerodynamics during flight. Birds typically have streamlined head profiles that strongly contrast with the appendages featured on echolocating bats. For example, birds do not rely as bats do on external pinnae, the visible part of the ear outside the head, to localize sound during echolocation, or the use of sound waves to locate objects in space. Some bat species also have a large noseleaf, or nose ornament, which allows them to vocalize through their nostrils and direct the echolocation call. While pinnae and noseleaves allow a bat to perform echolocation for hunting and foraging, they are often large in comparison to the bat’s body, and this could potentially slow the bats down by creating a large amount of drag, or resistance, as the bat flies.

To better understand how the structure of a bat’s head might affect its ability to fly, the authors of this PLOS ONE study tested seven different bat species with varying head shapes, including a bat species with a noseleaf, an appendage which hadn’t been tested previously.

journal.pone.0118545.g001

The researchers conducted micro-computerized tomography scans (CT scans) on previously deceased bat heads collected from labs, and then 3D-printed models of the heads. They then created a standardized bat body profile for these models based off of photos of different species of bats in flight, such as the pale spear-nosed bat and the hairy big-eared bat flight poses shown in B and C in the image above. As there were no high-quality flight images available for the common big-eared bat, the authors used images of the hairy big-eared bat, a close relative, to approximate its head posture.

Each of the bat models were placed in a wind tunnel for aerodynamics testing. The models were tested at angles of attack, or the angles a bat flies toward its prey, between −30° and +30°, at air speeds of 5 m/s and 10 m/s, to measure factors such as drag and lift. The graphs below show that while the bat heads generate a large amount of both lift and drag, the lift-to-drag ratio is high for all bat species. This means that the bats experience slightly more lift than drag, and since an increased lift-to-drag ratio helps aid in flight, the authors suggest that the bats’ head shapes may not be hindering their flight as much as previously thought.

journal.pone.0118545.g002

The authors conducted additional testing with the long-legged bat model, to determine whether a bat possessing both pinnae and a noseleaf would also experience more lift than drag in the wind tunnel.  The graphs below show that the bat model with pinnae and noseleaf attached experiences high lift and drag, and when these are removed, those forces mostly decrease.

journal.pone.0118545.g004

Since the bat pinnae generate more lift than drag in most cases, the authors suggest that the shape and features on the bats’ heads do not produce a heavy aerodynamic cost, but may actually aid their flight.

While these researchers aren’t the first to suggest that pinnae may also create lift, they expand on this result with more detailed models of a range of bat species, with different pinnae lengths, and by including a species that has a noseleaf. Furthermore, since the researchers tested bat species from a wide variety of ecological niches, or the ways in which the bats function within the ecosystem, their findings may be more easily generalized across the bat taxa than previous research.

While the authors acknowledge that there are limitations to testing static models for bat aerodynamics, their results suggest that pinnae and noseleaves may not affect bat aerodynamic capability as was previously thought. Looks like the shape of the bats’ faces might not slow down their nighttime flight after all!

Citation: Vanderelst D, Peremans H, Razak NA, Verstraelen E, Dimitriadis G (2015) The Aerodynamic Cost of Head Morphology in Bats: Maybe Not as Bad as It Seems. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0118545. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0118545

Gardiner J, Dimitriadis G, Sellers W, Codd J (2009) The aerodynamics of big ears in the brown long eared bat plecotus auritus. Acta Chiropterologica 10: 313–321. doi: 10.3161/150811008X414881

Images: Image 1: Bernard Dupont on Flickr, Images 2, 3 and 4: Figures 1, 2 and 4 from published article.

Category: Aggregators, Ecology, Fun, Images, Worth A Thousand Words | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Small Talk: When Bacterial Chatter Gets Invasive

Sticks and stones may break our bones but microbes’ “words” may hurt us.

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Breast cancer is a threat to men and women worldwide. Like all cancers, the known causes are attributed to genetics and carcinogens, but recently, scientists have begun to recognize the microbiome as another contributing factor. Historically, breast tissue had been thought to be sterile, but it has become increasingly evident that microbes may both move to and reside in the breast tissue and nipple ducts.

Building on the recent discovery of Escherichia and Bacillus bacteria in the breast tissue, researchers published a study in PLOS ONE illustrating the role bacterial communication may play in breast tumor progression.

Bacteria have a system of communicating with each other called quorum sensing, where they may release hormones, lactones, or peptides that act as chemical signals to elicit a specific response in other bacteria. Quorum sensing peptides and bacteria themselves can travel in the blood stream, and this may allow for both the peptides and bacteria from other areas of the body to invade breast tissue.

The authors of this study investigated the relationship between blood vessel formation and quorum sensing peptides, and how these entities may promote breast tumor cell invasion in vitro. To assess the effects that the presence of these bacteria and peptides may have on breast tumor evolution, researchers evaluated signaling peptides released from three different bacterial strains common to the human microbiota: Bacillus subtilis, Streptococcus mitis, and Escherichia coli. Using cancerous cells derived from human tissue, researchers looked at how much protein was produced, what genes were affected, and visual changes in the human tumor cells after cells were exposed to the quorum sensing bacterial peptides.

The researchers found that exposing these cells to quorum sensing peptides caused an increase in the production of specific proteins by the cells related to oncogenes, specific genes associated with cancer spread and growth. One of these oncogenes results in angiogenesis, the process by which new blood vessels are formed so that blood can reach the tumor and deliver nutrients necessary for growth. Additionally, the researchers noted a drop in the expression of an important anti-tumor protein in the human cells, p53, which could result in further tumor growth and progression.

journal.pone.0119471.g002 (2)

Next, the researchers used an established assay for tumor invasion, called chick chorioallantoic membrane assay, or CAM, to monitor blood supply, or vascularization, a possible indicator of angiogenesis. As depicted in the image above, after 6 days of exposure to the peptides, the researchers observed neovascularization—the growth and formation of blood vessels—in the embryonic membrane of a chick egg. This increase in vascularization may be a route of transportation for the quorum sensing bacteria and peptides to enter the breast tissue.

The researchers were then able to use microscopy to observe how peptide treatment caused the tumor cells to disrupt the chorionic membrane and spread, the latter through a process called metastasis. They saw that the exposure to quorum sensing peptides appeared to promote tumor cell invasion through the chorionic layer into the mesoderm. The black arrows in the image below point to the aggressive invasion of the tumor cells through the chorionic tissue layers and disruption of the membrane. Although this experiment was performed on chick chorionic epithelial cells and not human breast tissue cells, the results from this tumor invasion assay may indicate what might happen during breast tissue invasion.

journal.pone.0119471.g003 (1)

Microbes are the yin to the human yang, and are vital for survival. It is becoming increasingly evident that microbial diversity within our bodies plays a role in not only our daily lives, but also in the progression and or prevention of disease. Although more work needs to be done to map the mechanisms by which the peptides interact with the tumor cells, the authors of this study have taken strides forward to suggest a link between bacterial communication and the growth and spread of breast tumors. With this information, researchers may look at microbial therapy and alternative preventative measures for a variety of diseases and cancers.

Citation: De Spiegeleer B, Verbeke F, D’Hondt M, Hendrix A, Van De Wiele C, Burvenich C, et al. (2015) The Quorum Sensing Peptides PhrG, CSP and EDF Promote Angiogenesis and Invasion of Breast Cancer Cells In Vitro. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0119471. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0119471

Image 1: Staphylococcus epidermidis Bacteria by NIAID

Images 2-3: Figures 2 and 3 from the published article.

Category: Aggregators, Fun, Images, Topic Focus, Worth A Thousand Words | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Zoom-Enhance: Identifying Trends in Article-Level Metrics

In late December 2013, PLOS ONE published an article from UK-based Psychologists Rob Jenkins and Christie Kerr titled “Identifiable Images of Bystanders Extracted from Corneal Reflections”. Using high-resolution photography, Jenkins, from the University of York, and Kerr, from the University of Glasgow, demonstrate that humans can recognize faces in the reflection of photographed eyes.

ALM post image 1As high-resolution photography becomes increasingly accessible and portable, the possibilities of linking technology with the human brain become increasingly exciting. The notion of an image within an image, or a crime scene revealed in the reflection of an eye, creates endless possibilities for the scientifically minded. There are potential applications to criminal investigations with, for instance, the identity of a suspect being revealed within the eye of a photographed victim. It’s a bit creepy, but also fascinating—it’s not difficult to see why the article might capture the public’s imagination.

But perhaps even more amazing than the technology is the ability we have to recognize faces even in the absence of fine details we might have thought were crucial. An image of a well-known politician serves as an example:

ALM post image 2In an interview with the University of York, Dr Jenkins described the research:

“The pupil of the eye is like a black mirror. To enhance the image, you have to zoom in and adjust the contrast. A face image that is recovered from a reflection in the subject’s eye is about 30,000 times smaller than the subject’s face. Our findings thus highlight the remarkable robustness of human face recognition, as well as the untapped potential of high-resolution photography.”

The study conjures scenes from science fiction, most notably Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and the often-ridiculed “zoom-enhance” technology depicted in television crime dramas. This was a study bound to capture the attention of the internet—and it did. At the time of this writing, the article has more than 170,000 views and over 1,500 Twitter mentions. It is the fourth most-tweeted article ever published in PLOS ONE.

The overall picture of views and mentions on social media is impressive, but looking at the patterns in the Article-Level Metrics (ALMs) reveals some unexpected twists.

Take, for example, the ALMs graph illustrating cumulative views of the article:

ALM post image 3

As anticipated, the article attracted a large audience from the beginning. In the first month after publication, the article had nearly 40,000 views. We contacted Rob Jenkins for some comments on his experience:

I kept an eye on these metrics right from the start. I had done a lot of press on the day of publication—mainly radio interviews around the world—and was interested to see if this press promotion would register on the ALM tracker. I remember feeling really pleased towards the end of the day when the number of page views entered double digits. My goal of hitting 100 page views by the next day seemed within reach.

By the morning, the story had completely blown up, and the page views leaped up orders of magnitude in a matter of days. I always thought the story had the potential to capture people’s imagination, but I think the timing was the key. The paper was published on December 26th 2013, when a lot of people had free time on their hands.

But when looking at the cumulative views, what is unusual is that, after the initial attention and tapering off—a typical pattern—there was a major resurgence in views in January 2015, over a year after the article was published. Rob Jenkins commented:

Every few months I returned to the article metrics to get an idea of their trajectory. The typical pattern seems to be that page views peak in the first month and then fall off sharply. That was certainly the case here. Having originally been pleased that 100 seemed within reach, I was now slightly crestfallen that they would never reach 100,000.

Then something unexpected happened. In December 2014, one year after publication, the page views showed an anomalous spike—from a few hundred per month to nearly 9000. Curious. But I assumed that the established pattern would reassert itself the following month. In fact, January 2015 was the busiest month ever, with over 72,000 page views.

Looking at the data, it is clear that somehow (unusually) the article managed to spark a second life. With a flurry of catchy hashtags, including #Woah #BladeRunner, #Spooky, and #Enhance Enhance Enhance, the study came back into the public consciousness. While the several pages of Twitter discussions reveal a few noteworthy tweets from potential “hub” Twitter users, it is not trivial to find an apparent, specific event that triggered the second wave of article views.

Dr Jenkins was similarly perplexed:

I’m afraid I don’t know what triggered the jump in views. I’m not aware of any media coverage after the first wave early 2014. I presented the study at an Interpol meeting in Autumn 2014, and I still include it in talks to general audiences, but I can’t draw a line from any of those events to the ALM profile. I’m sorry I can’t offer any more insight.

ALM post image 4

So, unfortunately, neither the ALMs nor the author can provide a satisfactory explanation for the article’s resurgence in popularity. But, after a slightly deeper investigation, we have come up with a few theories:

Holiday viewing

Perhaps, as Dr Jenkins mentioned, it was the time of year. The second peak in views came during the holiday season, when work is a little slower and there is time to reflect upon the notable events and discoveries of the last year, with a focus on the fun, new, and imaginative. Could it be that the second wave of views came as scientists kicked back with some eggnog, behind the soft glow of their computer screens, and reflected upon the articles that captured the public’s attention over the past 12 months?

Twitter

Perhaps the second wave of views could be explained through Twitter, where the article had a significant presence. One of the first notable tweets in the article’s comeback came on 29 December 2014 from Rowan Hooper, News Editor for New Scientist. He mentioned the article on his Twitter feed, garnering ~300 retweets and ~175 favorites. A few days later, Ed Yong, a British science writer with over 65,000 followers on Twitter, also mentioned the article, and his tweet was retweeted ~750 times and favorited ~500 times. It seems plausible that these notable mentions are the source of the article’s new life.

ALM post image 5Buzzfeed

When published, the article received significant media attention including coverage in The Telegraph and Scientific American, but after the first few weeks, the coverage died down. However there is a notable event that coincides with the resurgence of the article’s popularity. On 29 December, the popular website BuzzFeed published an entry titled “46 Important Things Science Taught Us In 2014,” where the article was featured at number 18. With frequent links on social media, BuzzFeed has become ubiquitous in our internet lives, and coverage at the end of the year, where there is an obsession with best-of lists, could well be responsible for bringing a new audience to the article.

ALM post image 6Finally…. The Verdict:

An investigation of the ALMs and media coverage provides a number of clues to explain the viewing pattern, but we cannot draw any firm conclusions beyond an affirmation that the world—and in particular, the Internet—is a complex and highly socially networked place. While ALMs cannot provide an interpretation, they do provide us with valuable data that reflects the way science is communicated in the 21st century. The most likely explanation is, of course, a complex one, with several factors at play, some more than others, but all playing a part.

Still, in our continuing quest for an answer, we have contacted our local CSI unit to see if we can borrow some of their forensic smarts.

You can view the ALMs and media coverage of the article via the following links. All articles published by PLOS have this information.

ALMs: http://www.plosone.org/article/Metrics/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0083325

Media coverage for this article: http://www.plosone.org/article/related/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0083325

Post written by Adrian Aldcroft

Citation: Jenkins R, Kerr C (2013) Identifiable Images of Bystanders Extracted from Corneal Reflections. PLoS ONE 8(12): e83325. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083325

Images:

 Image 1, 2, 6: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0083325

Image 3, 4: http://www.plosone.org/article/Metrics/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0083325

Image 5: Capture from Ed Yong’s Twitter, https://twitter.com/edyong209/status/550299961204961281

Category: Article-Level Metrics, Author Spotlight, Interviews, Media, Social Media | Tagged | 1 Comment

Biting Off What They Can Chew: Scientists Use 3D Reconstructions to Study Animal Jaw Mechanics

Wombat Chinese giant salamander

Wombat 3D skull                Salamander 3D skull

Studying the muscles that animals use to bite and chew can tell us a lot about their eating habits. In the past, researchers often undertook painstaking dissection of animal specimens by hand to visualize the muscles used for specific tasks like chewing. Physical damage from the separation of muscle layers during dissection and the effects of dehydration post-mortem can limit the accuracy of manual dissection, making this option less than ideal. In two recent PLOS ONE studies, researchers show us that modern “digital dissection” technologies can be used to avoid the problems associated with traditional dissections in two very different animals, one cute and cuddly and one slimy and giant.

In the first study, the authors used non-destructive X-ray computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques alongside traditional dissection to generate the first detailed model of the muscles a common wombat uses to close its jaw. While we are most familiar with these types of scans from their use in medical imaging and screening for human diseases, these same methods can be used by researchers to get a peek at an animal’s inner muscular workings.

CT and MRI scans can pinpoint specific regions of an object and create a series of bisecting images, or “slices.” Scientists can view each slice separately, allowing them to identify individual muscle groups and tissues, as in the image below.

Wombat skull CT scan (Fig. 2)

Individual slices are assembled to reconstruct the object with a detailed view of the inner structures. In the study, a 3D reconstruction of the wombat head is created by combining the information obtained from CT and MRI slices. Because these techniques allow the authors to see the inner architecture of the head, they are able to reconstruct the bones and muscles from the inside out, and see first-hand the interactions of the muscles in their position in the skull. What’s more, a neat, downloadable 3D PDF (Figure S1) is included in the paper that, when opened using Adobe Reader, is fully interactive. Readers can rotate the model 360°, isolate individual parts, or make certain parts transparent.

3D Wombat Skull (Fig6)

Authors of another recent PLOS ONE paper took their analysis one step further to study the bite mechanics of a Chinese giant salamander, the world’s largest amphibian. These researchers used CT scanning to analyze sutures that naturally occur on the skulls of adult and adolescent salamanders. The sutures are essential for skull stability and help to disperse compression forces during biting. By modeling the stress points that would occur under different biting conditions and comparing them to the skull sutures, scientists can predict which bite pattern would cause the least stress on the skull.

The authors of this study used computer simulations to model a bilateral bite, with initial equal pressure on both sides of the mouth, or a unilateral bite, with initial pressure on the left side of the mouth only. In each situation, authors simulated prey capture with the initial bite occurring toward the front versus the back of the mouth. The scientists found a clear difference in the simulated pattern of generated forces when the salamander was biting down at the front tip of the mouth versus the back.

In the video above, the authors used heat mapping to show the simulated forces exerted on various points in the salamander’s skull during the bite, with red patches indicating the greatest force, and blue patches indicating the least. The video shows what the researchers predict to be the optimal biting strategy: biting down at the front of the mouth causes less stress on the skull relative to biting down further back in the jaw.

While a bilateral bite distributes forces and allows salamanders to capture elusive or large prey, the video below shows an asymmetrical bite that may be utilized during a “sit-and-wait” strategy to capture prey in the water using a sudden strike on one side of the mouth. This asymmetrical strike is unique among vertebrates and can create a suction, pulling the prey and surrounding water into the mouth.

Both of these “digital dissection” techniques allow scientists to look at jaw mechanics in exquisite detail, without destroying the specimen, and may even help us understand the bites of extinct species. And maybe the next time you bite into a sandwich, you’ll think a whole lot more about just what goes into that chomp.

 

Citations:

Sharp AC, Trusler PW (2015) Morphology of the Jaw-Closing Musculature in the Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus) Using Digital Dissection and Magnetic Resonance Imaging. PLoS ONE 10(2): e0117730. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117730

Fortuny J, Marcé-Nogué J, Heiss E, Sanchez M, Gil L, et al. (2015) 3D Bite Modeling and Feeding Mechanics of the Largest Living Amphibian, the Chinese Giant Salamander Andrias davidianus (Amphibia:Urodela). PLoS ONE 10(4): e0121885. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0121885

Images:

Image 1: Phil Whitehouse, Wombat via flickr
Image 2: Toby Jungen, Chinese Giant Salamander via flickr
Image 3, 5, and 6: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117730
Image 4: 10.1371/journal.pone.0121885

Videos: 10.1371/journal.pone.0121885

Category: Aggregators | 1 Comment

PLOS ONE Update on Peer Review Process

There has been a great deal of community discussion in the last few days about a referee report that was sent to an author at PLOS ONE a few weeks ago. The report contained objectionable language, and the authors were understandably upset. Since this came to my attention I directed my team to perform a prompt investigation.

 

PLOS ONE has strict policies for how we expect peer review to be performed and we strive to ensure that the process is fair and civil. We have taken a number of steps to remedy the situation.  We have formally removed the review from the record, and have sent the manuscript out to a new editor for re-review. We have also asked the Academic Editor who handled the manuscript to step down from the Editorial Board and we have removed the referee from our reviewer database.

 

I want to sincerely apologize for the distress the report caused the authors, and to make clear that we completely oppose the sentiments it expressed. We are reviewing our processes to ensure that future authors are given a fair and unprejudiced review. As part of this, we are working on new features to make the review process more open and transparent, since evidence suggests that review is more constructive and civil when the reviewers’ identities are known to the authors (Walsh et al., 2000). This work has been ongoing for some months at PLOS ONE, and we will be announcing more details on these offerings soon.

Category: Aggregators, Peer review, Submissions, Topic Focus | Tagged | 44 Comments

Fun(d) with Science

After the money's gone

After the money’s gone

Many researchers will tell you that financing their work–writing grants, securing funding, and budgeting for varying funding levels year to year–is the least rewarding part of life in academia, but there’s no escaping the simple fact that science costs money. For decades, the majority of taxpayer-funded research dollars in the United States and much of the world has been awarded through relatively large grants from foundations or government-backed agencies. Funders seek to maximize their bang-for-buck, betting on what research will pay the biggest dividends, but both scientists and policymakers are constantly looking for new funding opportunities and reconsidering best practices for grants. This blog post highlights two articles published in PLOS ONE that examine how we pay for science.

The first study concerns a relatively new potential source of funding for research: crowdfunding, or soliciting small-dollar-amount contributions from many people via the internet. In an effort to determine how different factors contribute to the success or failure of crowdfunding campaigns to finance research projects, a group of scientists from across the United States coordinated the #SciFund Challenge. In three rounds, 159 scientists were recruited to run their own crowdfunding campaigns for relatively low-cost research projects. Using the RocketHub crowdfunding platform, scientists posted their research ideas, which were mostly conservation biology and ecology, but included other disciplines such as political science and psychology. They then promoted their campaigns via email, social media, and outreach to varying degrees as they saw fit. Between July 2011 and December 2012, these proposals brought in over $250,000 worth of funding.

Based on statistical analysis of each project’s page views, tweets, contributions, and researcher surveys, the authors of the study conclude that the success of a research crowdfunding campaign is not determined solely by pre-existing levels of public interest and awareness. Rather, scientists’ efforts in outreach and public engagement do appear to matter to the success or failure of such campaigns. The authors propose an optimal recipe for a successful campaign as follows:

  1. Develop a communication network to increase interest in the research and establish lines of communication with the public.
  2. Use email, Twitter, and other social media outlets to build upon the established communication network.
  3. Once the campaign is underway, leverage the network and interest into page views and donations.
Author's proposed funding model

Author’s proposed model for a successful crowdfunding campaign

No matter how compelling the research or how savvy the researcher, though, it’s unlikely that crowdfunding will ever replace traditional funding sources. While individual donations to crowdfunding campaigns are generally small in size, awards through grants from larger funders typically come in much larger chunks. How big should those chunks be, and is work backed by more than one funding source?

This was the topic of a 2013 PLOS ONE paper, in which researchers at the University of Ottawa examined how the size of funding grants affects the impact of scientific research. The authors of the study compared the size of grants awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to the academic impact of the resulting work. How to best quantify the impact of research is an open question, contentious, and subjective in its own right, but these authors used four metrics:

  1. The numbers of articles published as a result of the research
  2. The numbers of citations those articles received in peer-reviewed publications
  3. The most-cited article that resulted from the research
  4. The number of highly cited articles that arose from the research

The authors found that impact (as they defined it) tended to increase with funding, but only weakly. Scientists who received grants from both the NSERC and an additional funder, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, did not appear to produce more impactful work than those funded solely by the NSERC. The authors also found that impact and funding may be subject to the law of diminishing returns, e.g., the 100,000th dollar may not increase research impact of as much as the 10,000th dollar does. As we consider the right grant size to maximize bang for buck, this study may add to the literature suggesting that granting agencies may get more impact per dollar by awarding smaller grants to more scientists, rather than only awarding a few large grants to perceived “elite” scientists.

There are some projects and objectives for which large-scale grants are indispensable, and crowd-funding may not be an appropriate or feasible means of financing all research projects. Nonetheless, both scientists and funders may do well to consider fresh alternatives to the large-grant funding opportunities that have held primacy for decades.

Related Articles

Images

The first image is from AndreasS via flickr. The second is Fig. 8 of the first study.

Citations

Byrnes JEK, Ranganathan J, Walker BLE, Faulkes Z (2014) To Crowdfund Research, Scientists Must Build an Audience for Their Work. PLoS ONE 9(12): e110329. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110329

Fortin J-M, Currie DJ (2013) Big Science vs. Little Science: How Scientific Impact Scales with Funding. PLoS ONE 8(6): e65263. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065263

Category: Article-Level Metrics, Social Media | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Earth Day 2015: Celebrating Our Awe Inspiring World

14961414078_3807a5f721_zWe share Earth with millions of amazing plants and animals. Whether we’re relaxing in a hot spring like a Japanese macaque, or catching a glimpse of a rare bird, our exposure to Nature’s diversity enriches our lives and makes us feel closer to the wild world around us.

For Earth Day 2015, we are celebrating our diversity by highlighting some of our favorite images of flora and fauna from recently published PLOS ONE papers.

Fanged frog births live tadpoles

journal.pone.0115884.g002(1)Scientists have recently discovered a new frog species, Limnonectes larvaepartus, that resides in Indonesia and is related to fanged frogs. This newly described species has both internal fertilization and gives birth to live tadpoles, instead of laying eggs like many other frogs.

1,600 year-old ‘grandmother’ tree

journal.pone.0121170.g002These plump, trunked trees are called fony baobab and are found in Tsimanampetsotsa National Park in Madagascar. Researchers found one fony baobab tree called “grandmother,” which has three different aged stems fused together. Scientists’ radiocarbon dated the tree and found that the oldest part of the tree is likely close to 1,600 years old, possibly the oldest baobab tree in Madagascar.

You’re makin’ me yawn!

journal.pone.0105963.g001The wolves pictured above aren’t barking at each other. They’re actually experiencing a phenomenon that humans also experience, called yawn contagion. Scientists aren’t quite sure why the yawning seems to spread between these wolves, but they think that closer social bonds may increase yawn contagion.

Clues to understanding isolated dolphin populations

10.1371_journal.pone.0101427.g004With over 8 million animals inhabiting Earth, it’s difficult to study them all in depth. To search for clues about two ‘near-threatened’ and rarely studied dolphin populations, scientists looked at the Australian snubfin and humpback dolphins living in the tropical coastal waters of northern Australia. They found that these populations are genetically isolated, which the authors caution may impede their ability to adapt to environmental change.

Thanks for celebrating this great blue planet with us today.

Happy Earth Day!

 

Citations: Iskandar DT, Evans BJ, McGuire JA (2014) A Novel Reproductive Mode in Frogs: A New Species of Fanged Frog with Internal Fertilization and Birth of Tadpoles. PLoS ONE 9(12): e115884. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0115884

Patrut A, von Reden KF, Danthu P, Leong Pock-Tsy J-M, Patrut RT, et al. (2015) Searching for the Oldest Baobab of Madagascar: Radiocarbon Investigation of Large Adansonia rubrostipa Trees. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0121170. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0121170

Romero T, Ito M, Saito A, Hasegawa T (2014) Social Modulation of Contagious Yawning in Wolves. PLoS ONE 9(8): e105963. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0105963

Brown AM, Kopps AM, Allen SJ, Bejder L, Littleford-Colquhoun B, et al. (2014) Population Differentiation and Hybridisation of Australian Snubfin (Orcaella heinsohni) and Indo-Pacific Humpback (Sousa chinensis) Dolphins in North-Western Australia. PLoS ONE 9(7): e101427. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101427

Images 1, 2, 3, 4, 5: View of Rocky Mountain National Park by Andrew E. Russell, Figure 2, Figure 2, Figure 1, and Figure 4

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Head Rattling Results: Fin Whales Hear with Their Skulls

Front (whale)

Many of us have heard the haunting call of a whale ‘song,’ but how do the whales themselves hear sound? Similar to the way that animals see color in different ranges of the visible light spectrum, the mechanism by which they hear sound can also vary and in some cases is still not well understood.

The authors of the recently published PLOS ONE article, “Fin Whale Sound Reception Mechanisms: Skull Vibration Enables Low-Frequency Hearing,” investigated how sound interacts with a fin whale’s skull. Specifically they looked at low-frequency sounds such as those used by whales, likely to communicate across long distances. The researchers obtained a whale skull after an unsuccessful attempt to rescue a beached newborn fin whale on Sunset Beach, Orange County, CA. They took a computed tomography (CT) scan of the skull and used it to construct a finite element model, which allowed them to simulate and make predications regarding the mechanism by which fin whales hear sound.

second (whale)

For the majority of animals that have what we normally anatomically identify as ears, the vibration of bones within the ear allows them to hear sounds. Fin whale ears work the same way, and by watching the simulated response of the bones in their model to sound, the authors were able to identify two main mechanisms by which fin whales hear. The first, and most prevalent, is known as the ‘bone conduction mechanism,’ where the vibration of the ear bones is caused by the movement of the skull in reaction to sound. The second mechanism is called the ‘pressure mechanism,’ which describes the way sound directly interacts with the whale ear bones after moving through the water and head tissue. In the figure below, the authors provide a colorful image from their model of the ear bones interacting with sound.

third (whale)

It is important to note that while the authors found that the ‘bone conduction mechanism’ seemed to be the main mechanism for hearing in their model, it may only be applied specifically to fin whales since it was the only skull type that they studied. However since fin whales are a type of baleen whale, distinguished from toothed whales by their baleen which filters food out of the water in place of teeth, it is possible that other baleen whales utilize the ‘bone conduction mechanism’ as well. The physiology of most toothed whales is much different than baleen whales, and a group of ligaments actually separates the ear bones from the rest of the skull making it more difficult for skull vibrations to reach the ear bones.

The fact that fin whales communicate using low-frequency vocalizations also pairs with the authors’ findings. Low-frequency sounds tend to scatter and therefore do not have the ability to apply much direct pressure on ear bones. Therefore the sound’s contact with the skull would account for the majority of how they hear these low-frequency sounds and the ‘pressure mechanism’ would be less impactful. Although a calf skull (see below) was used in this study, the authors note that these mechanisms should not change in the adult skull, as the components of hearing physiology develop at a young age.

fourth (whale)

How marine animals perceive sound has been a topic of growing discussion as the amount of man-made noise increases in the ocean. Tools such as sonar, often used by the military to detect objects underwater, have been suggested as a cause of some fin whale behavior that has been interpreted as confusion or even a possible cause of beaching. The authors mention that the results of their study may assist policy-making bodies, to protect our ocean’s species from things such as the inadvertent effects of sonar. Keep an ear to the ocean and if you are lucky enough to hear a whale call, you can now listen with a well-informed ear.

Citation: Cranford TW, Krysl P (2015) Fin Whale Sound Reception Mechanisms: Skull Vibration Enables Low-Frequency Hearing. PLoS ONE 10(1): e0116222. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0116222
Images: Fin Whale by Amila Tennakoon via Flickr. Fig. 1 and Figs. S4 and S9 of the published article.

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Who Let the Microbes Out: A Paw Print of Doggy Skin Bacteria

A house is not a home without a dog, and a dog isn’t a “D-O-double-G” without its microbial “crew.”

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Human microbiome research is progressing rapidly, and we are always learning how the bacteria living on and inside of us contribute to our survival and well-being. Although we are making some headway to understanding the role of human flora in our bodies and in disease progression, we know far less about the microbial flora in our pooch friends.

The diverse microbial landscape on skin is essential for all animals, as it helps maintain essential oils and plays “guard” in the first line of immune defense. However, living on animal skin isn’t easy—it’s exposed to the world and all its creatures, and endures some serious physical contact with them. There are many skin diseases that may alter skin microbe colonization, such as atopic dermatitis (AD), one of the most common skin infections in dogs (and people). Dogs that do develop AD have an increased sensitivity to many allergens. Additionally, many dogs with allergic AD are subject to bacterial skin infections. With this in mind, a group of researchers at Texas A&M recently published a study in PLOS ONE where they identify the microbial makeup of dog skin. The authors “hired” a crew of healthy dogs, as well as a group of dogs with allergic AD, to characterize the differences in their bacterial communities.

To obtain samples of as many skin-inhabiting critters as possible, the researchers brushed swabs back and forth on 12 different skin sites from the “healthy” dog squad, and 4 different skin sites from the allergic AD dogs, with the sites shown in the image below.

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After extracting and sequencing the DNA from the swab culture samples, the authors were able to characterize the microbial inhabitants of the dogs’ skin for each site, and compare the species distribution found on the healthy dogs’ skin to those found on the allergic dogs. In healthy dogs, the lowest abundance of species, also called species richness, were found in their mucosal areas, such as the nostrils; whereas the haired-skin areas, such as the groin and axilla, had the highest species richness. Notably, ears took the “bone” with 866 different species present!

Among all dogs tested, the authors found a total of 17 different phyla, with Proteobacteria being the most abundant phylum. Ralstonia was the most abundant genus, likely because it’s found in dirt and water, the favorited doggy playground. Although there was high variability among the individual dogs tested, the authors found that the proportion of Ralstonia was much lower in all allergic dogs.

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The species richness was much lower in the allergic dogs as compared to healthy dogs, as seen in the image above. The authors suggest that this difference may be the result of the antimicrobial washes that allergic dogs are often prescribed by vets for treatment, as well as skin changes induced by the allergic inflammation response.

While there is much work to be done characterizing the full doggie microbiome, and this study had a limited sample size, the authors have made steps toward characterizing the bacterial ecology of dog skin, and discovered that dog skin may contain much richer and more diverse microbial communities than were previously suggested. Like with the human microbiome, researchers might now investigate the role of the dog microbiome in normal function, disease progression, and better treatments for our favorite co-pilots. So next time you let the dogs out, give a thought to their bacterial companions!

Citation: Rodrigues Hoffmann A, Patterson AP, Diesel A, Lawhon SD, Ly HJ, et al. (2014) The Skin Microbiome in Healthy and Allergic Dogs. PLoS ONE 9(1): e83197. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083197

Image 1: Hawaiian Burton by Sarah Nichols

Images 2-3: Figures 4 and 7 from the published article.

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