Introducing PLOS ONE’s Science of Stories Collection

Stories have the power to shape our identities and worldviews. They can be factual or fictional, text-based or visual and can take many forms—from novels and non-fiction to conspiracy theories, rumors and disinformation. We can characterize stories by their plot, their characters, their audience, their style, their themes or their purpose. Given the massive power of stories to alter the course of society, innovative methods to understand them empirically and quantitatively are necessary.

Today, we are pleased to introduce PLOS ONE’s Science of Stories Collection, which  includes submissions invited through a Call for Papers last year. The Call for Papers welcomed primary research papers that propose solutions to real world, data-rich problems that use different empirical methods. The Guest Editors overseeing the scope and curating the Collection are Peter Dodds (University of Vermont), Mirta Galesic (Santa Fe Institute), Matthew Jockers (Washington State University), and Mohit Iyyer (University of Massachusetts Amherst).

At launch, the Collection includes over 15 papers illustrating data-driven approaches to understanding stories and their impact. Some articles explore the nature of narrative and narrative thinking in texts and other media, for instance, the role of similarity in narrative persuasion, the effects of choosing violence in narratives, the importance of characters in narratives communicating risk of natural disaster, the impact of storytelling in complex collaborative tasks such as food preparation, and the role of narrative in collaborative reasoning and intelligence analysis.

Other articles present new methods to extract stories from datasets and datasets from stories, including automated narrative analysis via machine learning, systematic modeling of narrative structure and dynamics, and large-scale analysis of gender stereotypes in movies and books.

A third group of papers analyze how narratives are transformed and how they can transform people, for example, looking at the co-evolution of contagion (e.g., disease, addiction, or rumor) and behavior, social media’s contribution to political misperceptions in US elections, how people’s intuitive theories of physics can partly account for how they think about imaginary worlds, how narrative can induce empathy for people engaging in negative health behaviors, and the impact of mental health recovery narratives on health outcomes.

A final group of papers explores the communication of data-rich narratives to the public, including the relative effectiveness of video abstracts and plain language summaries versus graphical abstracts and published abstracts, newly emerging platforms for writing and commenting on literary texts at unprecedented scale, and the role of narrative in perceived authenticity in science communication.

Papers will continue to be added to the Collection as they reach publication, so we invite you to revisit the Collection again for additional insights into the science of stories.

Guest Editors

Peter Sheridan Dodds

Peter Dodds is Professor at the University of Vermont’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics. He is Director of the Vermont Complex Systems Center and co-runs the center’s Computational Story Lab. Having a general interest in stories and narratives, complexification, contagion, and robustness, Dodd’s research focuses on system-level, big data problems of all kinds, often networked, sociotechnical ones. His work has been supported by an NSF CAREER award to study sociotechnical phenomena, the McDonnell Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, NASA, the MITRE Corporation, Computer Associates, and Mass Mutual.

Mirta Galesic

Mirta Galesic is Professor and Cowan Chair in Human Social Dynamics at the Santa Fe Institute, External Faculty at the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna, Austria, and Associate Researcher at the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany. She studies how simple cognitive mechanisms interact with social and physical environments to produce seemingly complex social phenomena. She develops empirically grounded computational models of social judgments, social learning, collective problem solving, and opinion dynamics. She is also interested in how people understand and cope with uncertainty and complexity inherent in many everyday decisions.

Mohit Iyyer

Mohit Iyyer is an Assistant Professor in computer science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Previously, he was a Young Investigator at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Mohit obtained his PhD at the University of Maryland, College Park, advised by Jordan Boyd-Graber and Hal Daumé III. His research interests lie in natural language processing and machine learning. Much of his work uses deep learning to model language at the discourse level, tackling problems like generating long coherent units of text, answering questions about documents and understanding narratives in fictional text.

Matthew L. Jockers

Matthew L. Jockers is Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and Professor of English and Data Analytics at Washington State University in Pullman, WA. Jockers has been leveraging computation to understand narrative and style since the early 1990s.  His books on the subject include Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History, Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature, and The Bestseller Code.  In addition to his academic work, Jockers helped launch two text mining startups and worked as Principal Research Scientist and Software Development Engineer in iBooks at Apple.


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A Year in Review: 2013 PLOS ONE Papers in the Media


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Tired of year-end lists? We know you’ve got room for at least one more. 2013 was a great year for PLOS ONE media coverage: We had over 5,000 news stories on over 1450 published articles.

The PLOS ONE press team poured tirelessly over the list to whittle down the papers that stood out the most. In celebration of the New Year, we’d like to share some of these titles with you.

Zipping back to January 2013 and moving forward from there, here they are:


1. Flowers Flowering Faster

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In “Record-Breaking Early Flowering in the Eastern United States,” US researchers used 161 years of historical reports—initiated by Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold in 1935—to track spring flowering times. They discovered that exceptionally warm spring temperatures in Massachusetts and Wisconsin in 2010 and 2012 may have resulted in the earliest recorded spring in the eastern United States. Furthermore, scientists indicate that these advanced flowering times could be predicted based on the historical data. This research received media attention from the The New York Times, National Geographic, and NPR.


2. Lend an Ear?

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US scientists 3D-printed a human ear using collagen hydrogels (a network of polymers that form a gel with water) derived from cow cartilage in the lab. They shared their results in “High-Fidelity Tissue Engineering of Patient-Specific Auricles for Reconstruction of Pediatric Microtia and Other Auricular Deformities.” The authors suggest that this advancement may be a significant first step toward creating patient-specific tissue implants for those who require ear prosthesis. Popular Science, Discovery News, and NPR covered this research.


3. Central African Elephants in Big Trouble

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African forest elephant populations may have declined by an alarming 62% in the last decade, according to the study “Devastating Decline of Forest Elephants in Central Africa.” The authors suggest that this dramatic drop is largely due to continuing illegal ivory trade and inadequate efforts to put a stop to it. ScienceNow, TIME, Slate, Smithsonian, and many others covered this story.


4. Wrapped up in a Book

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For everyone who enjoys a good page-turner, researchers in the study “The Expression of Emotions in 20th Century Books” indicate that recent British and American books have fewer emotional “mood” words than they did in the earlier half of the 20th century. What’s more, the study’s authors provide evidence that American authors express more emotion than British authors, and that newer American books use more words conveying fear than older ones. This research was covered by the The New York Times Arts Beat, Jezebel, our EveryONE blog, and Nature.


5. Gaming for All Ages

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In the article “A Randomized Controlled Trial of Cognitive Training Using a Visual Speed of Processing Intervention in Middle Aged and Older Adults,” researchers from multiple institutions in Iowa discovered that when middle-aged and older adults played video games, they scored better on cognitive function tests. The authors hope that these results might help us slow cognitive decline in older individuals. This paper was covered by the The Wall Street Journal, Nature, and The Telegraph.


6. Seafood Watch for Arctic Foxes?

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In another saddening story of declining wild animal populations, researchers studying the “Correlates between Feeding Ecology and Mercury Levels in Historical and Modern Arctic Foxes (Vulpes lagopus)” found that mercury levels in seafood may be the culprit. They emphasize that overall direct exposure to toxic materials may not be as important as the feeding ecology and opportunities of predators, like the arctic fox, that have a very marine-based diet, which may contain these toxic substances. This research received media attention from Wired UK, Scientific American, and The Guardian.


7. Cancer in Neandertals

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At least one Neandertal 120,000 years ago had a benign bone tumor in a rib, according to researchers in the study “Fibrous Dysplasia in a 120,000+ Year Old Neandertal from Krapina, Croatia.” The authors note, however, that they cannot comment on any health effects or the overall health condition of the individual without further evidence. This article received media attention from sources including the BBC, The New York Times, ScienceNOW, and Gizmodo.


8. Who Needs Rows of Teeth When You’ve Got a Tail to Slap Sardines?


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Thresher Sharks Use Tail-Slaps as a Hunting Strategy” contains the first video evidence of long-tailed sharks tail-slapping to stun their sardine prey. The authors suggest that this method may be effective when hunting prey that swim in schools. A Scientific American podcast, National Geographic’s Phenomena blogs, and NBC News were some of the media outlets that covered this research.


9. Contagious Yawning in Dogs and Chimps

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Yawning animals were the focus of more than one PLOS ONE article in 2013. In one study, “Familiarity Bias and Physiological Responses in Contagious Yawning by Dogs Support Link to Empathy,” Japanese researchers found that dogs yawn more often in response to their owners’ yawns rather than a stranger’s, and received media coverage from The Guardian, CBS News, and The Telegraph. The authors of another research article “Chimpanzees Show a Developmental Increase in Susceptibility to Contagious Yawning: A Test of the Effect of Ontogeny and Emotional Closeness on Yawn Contagion” showed that chimpanzees appear to develop a contagion for yawning as they get older, just as humans do, and this article received media attention from The New York Times Science Takes, Los Angeles Times, and Scientific American Blogs.


10. What, the Cat? Oh, He’s Harml…

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Our favorite parasite Toxoplasma gondii strikes again. Mice are normally terrified of cats, and rightly so, but Berkeley researchers (including a PLOS founder Mike Eisen) in “Mice Infected with Low-Virulence Strains of Toxoplasma gondii Lose Their Innate Aversion to Cat Urine, Even after Extensive Parasite Clearance” show that mouse exposure to the parasite, carried in cat feces, may alter the mouse’s brain, causing the mouse to permanently lose their fear of cats. The story received coverage from several news outlets, including a CNN segment by Charlie Rose, BBC, National Geographic Phenomena, and Nature.


11. Just in Time for the Movie: Jurassic Park is Fake

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Sorry in advance for the disheartening news: Jurassic Park will likely remain a work of fiction. In “Absence of Ancient DNA in Sub-Fossil Insect Inclusions Preserved in ‘Anthropocene’ Colombian Copal,” UK researchers were unable to find any evidence of ancient DNA in specimens of prehistoric insects fossilized in hardened tree sap. Conveniently, the article published right when the newest Jurassic Park film series was announced, and was covered by San Francisco Chronicle, The Telegraph, The Conversation, and others.


12. Not Now, Honey – The Pressure Just Dropped

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Insects avoid sex when a drop in atmospheric pressure occurs, which usually precedes rain, according to researchers in the study “Weather Forecasting by Insects: Modified Sexual Behaviour in Response to Atmospheric Pressure Changes.” Injury from rain can be deadly for some insect species, so the authors suggest that the insects modified their behavior to enhance survival (good choice!). The article has received attention from nearly 20 news outlets, including Nature, Los Angeles Times, Scientific American, and ScienceNOW.


13. Dinos with Squishy Joints and Tiny Arms



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Dinosaurs were a popular item in PLOS ONE in 2013, especially with the launch of PLOS ONE’s New Sauropod Gigantism Collection. The most popular article was a simulation of how the largest dinosaur, the Argentinosaurus, might have walked in “March of the Titans: The Locomotor Capabilities of Sauropod Dinosaurs,” which was covered in Washington Post and The Guardian. Another group of researchers showed that squishy joints were a major factor in the massiveness of saurischian dinosaurs in “What Lies Beneath: Sub-Articular Long Bone Shape Scaling in Eutherian Mammals and Saurischian Dinosaurs Suggests Different Locomotor Adaptations for Gigantism.” The article was covered by Gizmodo, Inside Science, and Discovery. Finally, a new super-predator larger than T. rex lived 80 million years ago and was described in “Tyrant Dinosaur Evolution Tracks the Rise and Fall of Late Cretaceous Oceans” and covered by BBC, Nature, and Discovery.


14. Huh?

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The title of this next study says it all: “Is “Huh?” a Universal Word? Conversational Infrastructure and the Convergent Evolution of Linguistic Items.” The authors of this article suggest that it is, and that at least ten countries use a variation of this word to verbally express confusion. The article was featured in NPR, The New York Times, and LA Times.


15. Little Red Riding Hood: The Evolution of a Folk Tale

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Little Red Riding Hood has very deep roots, as the authors of “The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood” show in their article. It has made its way across China to Europe and back again, but where did it begin? The authors indicate that phylogenetic methods (like the branched chart above) may be a new way to analyze cultural relationships among folk tales and oral narratives. This article received coverage in ScienceNOW, National Geographic, and Nature.

Thank you to all of our Academic Editors, reviewers, and authors for making these articles a reality. Needless to say, PLOS ONE staff cannot wait to see what lies ahead in 2014!

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Marine microbes make musical waves

Music may be the newest addition to a science communicator’s toolbox. A PLOS ONE paper published today describes an algorithm that represents terabytes of microbial and environmental data in tunes that sound remarkably like modern jazz.

Microbial bebop”, as the authors describe it, is created using five years’ worth of consecutive measurements of ocean microbial life and environmental factors like temperature, dissolved salts and chlorophyll concentrations. These diverse, extensive data are only a subset of what scientists have been recording at the Western Channel Observatory since 1903.

As first author Larsen explained to the Wired blogs, “It’s my job to take complex data sets and find ways to represent that data in a way that makes the patterns accessible to human observations. There’s no way to look at 10,000 rows and hundreds of columns and intuit what’s going on.”

Each of the four compositions in the paper is derived from the same set of data, but highlights different relationships between the environmental conditions of the ocean and the microbes that live in these waters.

“There are certain parameters like sunlight, temperature or the concentration of phosphorus in the water that give a kind of structure to the data and determine the microbial populations. This structure provides us with an intuitive way to use music to describe a wide range of natural phenomena,” explains Larsen in an Argonne National Laboratories article.

Speaking to Living on Earth, Larsen describes how their music highlights the relationship between different kinds of data. “In most of the pieces that we have posted, the melody is derived from a numerical measurement, such that the lowest measure is the lowest note and the highest measure is the highest note. The other component is the chords. And the chords map to a different component of the data.”

As a result, the music generated from microbial abundance data played to chords generated from phosphorus concentration data will sound quite different from the same microbial data played to chords derived from temperature data.

“Songs themselves probably are never going to actively replace, you know, the bar graph for data analysis, but I think that this kind of translation of complex data into a very accessible format is an opportunity to lead people who probably aren’t highly aware of the importance of microbial ecology in the ocean, and give them a very appealing entry into this kind of data”, explained Larsen in the same interview with Living on Earth.

Though their primary intent was to create novel way to symbolize the interactions of microbes in the ocean, the study also suggests that microbial bebop may eventually have applications in crowd-sourcing solutions to complex environmental issues.

For further reading, a PLOS ONE paper in 2010 demonstrated that the metaphors used to explain a problem could have a powerful impact on people’s thoughts and decisions when designing solutions. Could re-phrasing complex environmental data in music lead to solutions we haven’t heard yet? As you ponder the question, listen to some microbial bebop!

Other media sources that also covered this research include LiveScience, gizmag and the PLOS blog Tooth and Claw

Citations:  Larsen P, Gilbert J (2013) Microbial Bebop: Creating Music from Complex Dynamics in Microbial Ecology. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58119. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058119

Thibodeau PH, Boroditsky L (2011) Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16782. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016782

Image: sheet music by jamuraa on Flickr