Tracking science news across the web

I studied engineering, not journalism, so the way science research enters the mainstream has always been mysterious to me, like wondering how migrating birds find their way thousands of miles to another continent. I wonder how journalists decide what topics get covered and when to break the news, since the process of doing research tends to take place slowly over years. The paper that gets published today may be just a slight extension of similar work published two years ago. (Of course, to the researchers even minor advances feel huge, but to most people they may be indistinguishable from the original news story.) If the advance is minor (how minor?), is it still newsworthy? Often the trigger for publication in mainstream media is publication in a major journal, although results presented in conferences also tend to get covered heavily in the pharma sphere, since even preliminary results from clinical trials can be important for investors and competitors.

Some research has inherent public appeal. Such was the case with a paper that came out inAnalytical Chemistry in September. The paper was evocatively titled “Material Degradomics: on the Smell of Old Books” and described using the volatile degradation products from old books as a way to diagnose how the books are decomposing, to aid in preservation. What happens when a paper like this enters the world of Web 2.0? A quick internet search revealed the following:

  • September 17, 2009: Original Analytical Chemistry paper “Material Degradomics: On the Smell of Old Books” published on the web. Realizing how cool it is, Analytical Chemistryruns a commentary on the paper.

  • November 10, 2009: At 1am, covers the story. The blogosphere bursts with new posts on the paper. Why now?

  • November 12, 2009: History Today Magazine blogs it , @history_geek tweets the History Today post, science communication guru Tim Jones (@physicus) retweets. I retweet.

  • December 3, 2009: The LA Times picks it up as a health blog post

  • December 5, 2009: Cory Doctorow blogs it on BoingBoing

  • December 7, 2009: Freakonomics blogs it in the New York Times, linking to the LA Times piece

I’m sure someone must have blogged or Tweeted this story between September 17th and November 10th, but a brief search hasn’t turned up anything yet. It’s notable that prominent blogs BoingBoing and Freakonomics still deemed the item newsworthy over two months after it originally appeared–perhaps a testament to the increasingly niche and fractionated readerships who may not have heard the story yet. I’d love to see a more thorough analysis on how this information was transmitted and spread through the web–when does the peak occur, and why? What is the pattern of transmission?

As of December 11th, the original Analytical Chemistry paper and commentary were among the top 5 most-read Analytical Chemistry papers within the past month. I’m curious to see how long they stay there.