Science Surveyor uses cutting-edge algorithms to characterize the scientific literature on a selected topic. Using the abstract and citations of a peer-reviewed paper, Science Surveyor provides journalists context about that paper in several easy-to-read visualizations. Users wanting more information can click for a behind-the-scenes guide to methodology.

Why we developed Science Surveyor

Case Studies

To develop and test the algorithms, the Science Surveyor team used an array of case studies—that is, scientific articles from various fields. To see our results and the various features of Science Surveyor’s interactive visualization, please select a case from the tabs or scroll through each one in turn.

How we selected the case studies

Methane released when plants decompose

Most plants release methane during decomposition, when they are broken down by microorganisms under low-oxygen or anaerobic conditions, as in this study of peatlands.

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Living plants release methane, a potent greenhouse gas

This study found that plants release methane under aerobic conditions—in large quantities. The novel finding was controversial; and press coverage was, in some views, not sufficiently skeptical (including headlines such as “Global Warming: Blame the Forests"). The findings have not held up.

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Brain scans do not detect autism

This study explored the complexities of using brain scans to detect autism spectrum disorder, reaching a different conclusion than the other paper: that MRI did not reveal anatomical indicators, but might hold promise for revealing functional differences in people with autism.

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Brain scans detect autism

The press overreached with regard to the promise of these findings and the ability of MRI to detect autism, according to HealthNewsReviews. This small study suggested that anatomical differences in adults with autism might serve as a marker for the disorder.

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Coffee protects against Alzheimer's in mice

HealthNewsReviews reported that journalists did not emphasize the fact that the study was done in mice and did not reach out to enough independent experts in the field of Alzheimer’s research.

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Coffee protects against Alzheimer's in people

This study provides a meta-analysis of long-term epidemiological research and suggests that coffee may well be protective against Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias in people.

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Adult bird brains produce new neurons

Although early work showing neurogenesis in adult mammal brains was generally rejected until the late 1990s, research showing neurogenesis in adult bird brains grew steadily—although it too was considered controversial at the outset. Ultimately, those avian findings provided support for the work showing neurogenesis in the adult rat and primate brain.

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Adult primate brains produce new neurons

This was a seminal study in a then-emergent field, contradicting a highly cited study from 1985 that claimed there was no neurogenesis in the adult primate brain (despite a handful of studies from the 1960s finding that there was such growth in adult mammal brains). This groundbreaking work has held up and deepened over the last 17 years.

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Optogenetics used to trace Parkinson's pathway

Optogenetics is a young field, just over a decade old. Since the first paper describing the technique appeared in 2005, research in this realm has taken off and is being used to explore, among other things, behavior, basic brain function, and treatments for conditions such as depression.

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Optogenetics is used to reverse depression in mice

This study was not extensively covered, but one of the few journalists who reported on it did a good job contextualizing, describing similar, successful work done in people.

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Bacterium uses arsenic, a toxic metal, to grow

This study found a stunning result: that a bacterium could use the toxic metal arsenic in place of phosphorus—an element essential for life—to grow. The finding, which would have upended traditional understanding of biology and chemistry, has been largely discredited.

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Birth of the field of optogenetics

This paper fused research from several fields and launched a revolutionary, now widely embraced, approach to studying brain activity in real time.

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Brain stimulation reverses depression in people

This small study found that deep brain stimulation helped six people with “treatment-resistant” depression. Several years later, researchers using optogentic techniques found similar results in animal models.

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We are grateful to the Brown Institute for Media Innovation for support with a Magic Grant (2014-2015) and a Flagship Grant (2015-2016).


We hope that the tools and methodologies that we are developing here will find application in newsrooms around the country and perhaps become useful for anyone hoping to quickly characterize the ever-expanding scientific literature. The team intends to publish its research, and to reach out to potential partners who might be able to develop and expand on our findings.