By Roli Roberts, Associate Editor, PLOS Biology
Traditionally it would be a matter of counting journal citations, but that captures only one strand of the complex set of influences that a paper can have. Now we can separate out these strands and follow them, each with its own characteristic. The quick spike of Twitter, the steady spread on Facebook, the rash of saves in Mendeley, of citations in F1000Prime, the complex dynamics of html page views, PDF downloads, secondary coverage in scientific and popular media and in the blogosphere, and – yes – the slow-burn of journal citations. Each has its own time course, its own demographic (age, field, background) and its own texture. And each speaks to a subtly different aspect of the work’s appeal.
There are methodological papers that emerge unnoticed and become citation classics, and there are papers on intriguing animal behaviour that are splashed across the tabloids but have single-figure citations. Two very valid forms of impact, but back in 2012 we published a truly fascinating paper, Reconstructing Speech from Human Auditory Cortex, and two years of metrics show that it managed to hit both buttons very firmly.
Much of neuroscience arguably involves subjecting an animal to a stimulus and then trying to find out how the brain responds. This paper describes a spookily successful attempt to achieve the reverse – looking at the brain’s activity and trying to reconstruct the stimulus that must have caused it. By placing electrodes directly in contact with the auditory cortex, they were able to “mind-read” the words that the person had heard.
[For more from authors Robert T. Knight and Brian Pasley on this paper and their current research, read a June 2014 PLOS Neuro Community Weekly Q&A and listen to the 2012 podcast interview conducted by former PLOS Biology Senior Editor Ruchir Shah.
To date the this PLOS Biology research article paper has received nearly 85,000 page views, including over 9,000 PDF downloads, and has been cited 66 times already (see more metrics here). It’s the 48th most saved PLOS article in Mendeley of all time, is cited in two Wikipedia entries (“Thought Identification” and “2012 in Science“), and has respectable Facebook activity (21 likes, 467 shares, 33 posts). Twitter looks a bit thin on the ground because we only started collecting stats 5 months after the paper was published, so missing the main spike. But as well as the healthy academic attention, the article attracted massive press coverage that taps liberally into the memes of mind-reading and telepathy, and has inspired bloggers from Wales to Brazil.
Now that’s a great paper.
A slightly different version of this post by Roli Roberts was published today on PLOS Biologue.
About Roli Roberts
Brought up in Zambia, where I was home-schooled in the remote town of Mulobezi, I returned to the UK at the age of 11. I studied biochemistry at Oxford and did my PhD on the genetics of muscular dystrophy at Guy’s Hospital, London. After a post-doctoral fellowship in Boston I returned to the UK as lecturer and then senior lecturer at King’s College London. In 2011 I moved to a new life in science publishing. I’m now an associate editor at PLOS Biology, where I enjoy the combination of breadth of topic and open access ethic. All views are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of PLOS.