Accepting nominations for the “Pressies” recognizing the most overhyped science press releases of 2013

Scientists get all sorts of prizes this time of year. Some win a Lasker. Others a Nobel or a Breakthrough Prize. The really lucky get a commemorative mug from PNAS.

But the most important members of the scientific community get no recognition. I’m not talking about the graduate students and postdocs who actually do the work. No. I’m talking about the creative geniuses at university press offices who toil every week to turn the soon-to-be-published papers of their researchers – no matter how pedestrian or replicative – into heartbreaking works of staggering science.

To show our appreciation for everything they do, we have decided to create a new prize just for them – which will henceforth be known as “The Pressies”, and are now accepting nominations in the following categories:

  • Most Overhyped Science Story of the Year
  • Most Egregious Failure to Cite Earlier Work
  • Most Creative Use of the Term “Junk DNA” to Overhype a New Paper about non-coding DNA
  • Lifetime Achievement Award

Please leave your nominations in the comments. Include a link to the press release and a few sentences describing why you think it deserves a 2013 Pressy. Finalists will be announced in two weeks followed by one week of open voting. Awardees will be announced in January.

We haven’t decided what the winners will get, but our press office assures us that this year’s recipients will get the most important prize in the history of prizes – the first time anyone has ever received a prize like this. Henceforth the field of prizes will never be the same.

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  1. Benoit Bruneau
    Posted December 15, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    At a conference a year ago, Rick Young, in one memorable talk, told us 1. That “everything you heard over the last two days is wrong” (actual quote) as intro to RNAseq spike control “discovery” to compensate for transcript amplification, and 2. Super enhancers. Lifetime achievement award nomination for sure.

  2. Posted December 15, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  3. Nick
    Posted December 15, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Do scientists themselves really have no control over what university PR departments write about their work? It seems that everyone is pointing fingers solely at the press offices when I find it hard to believe that this stuff happens without significant complicity by the scientists themselves. Especially in this case where the paper itself introduced this ridiculous term “duon” which seems tailor-made for overhyping the significance of the work.

    • Posted December 15, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      Yes. It’s the scientists who are completely at fault. The press offices just say when scientists tell them to.

      • Nick
        Posted December 15, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        I didn’t say “completely at fault”. I said “serious complicity”. In this case, we have Stamatoyannopoulos being quoted as saying:

        For over 40 years we have assumed that DNA changes affecting the genetic code solely impact how proteins are made … Now we know that this basic assumption about reading the human genome missed half of the picture. These new findings highlight that DNA is an incredibly powerful information storage device, which nature has fully exploited in unexpected ways.

        Even granting the (very real!) possibility of misquotation, it’s hard for me to imagine anything he possibly could have said that would have been reasonable here.

        And, again: the paper itself introduced this risible term “duon”.

        • Kevin McKernan
          Posted December 15, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

          Its about as risible as ShoRAH. I enjoyed the paper.

          • Nick
            Posted December 15, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

            I’m not sure what the problem with “ShoRAH” is supposed to be (or why you’re bringing it up at all). In any case, the comparison seems off-base: one is the name of some piece of software and the other is a proposed entry into the lexicon of genetics.

            The “duon” notion strikes me as fundamentally faulty. A codon is actually a thing: three nucleotides that encode for an amino acid. In contrast, there’s no such thing as “a duon”: a sequence of codons might contain a binding site of some kind but no individual codon from that sequence has any additional meaning in and of itself.

            The paper overall seems fine. The introduction of the term “duon” does not.

          • Lexicon Rubicon
            Posted December 21, 2013 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

            Nick the Straw man,
            Can you point to the line in the paper which suggests duon be entered into the genomics lexicon. ShoRah is in your title. Duon is merely suggested as a way to think about TF footprint sequence preference.

      • Benoit Bruneau
        Posted December 15, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        Actually many press releases come with “quote” already formulated by the pr folks based sometimes (but not always) on a brief conversation with the scientist. So that “quote” may not have been uttered by John.

        • Nick
          Posted December 15, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

          So that “quote” may not have been uttered by John.

          Maybe it wasn’t! But on the other hand, maybe it was. I’m just not sure why everyone is simply assuming that 100% of the fault lies with the press folks as though scientists overhyping their own work is some unheard-of phenomenon. It seems too convenient, really.

    • Evan
      Posted December 17, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      Sometimes. As a graduate student I was deliberately misquoted after I disagreed with the pre-prepared quote the PR guy tried to feed me. Plenty of scientists are complicit in this, but there is no low I beleive a PR officer won’t stoop to in hyping the university research program.

      • Posted December 17, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        It’s a marriage of convenience. Press offices are paid to get attention for stories, and most scientists crave the attention.

  4. Posted December 15, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Nominating this news release.

    Some links to where the media are going with it can be found here.

    Ev psych is always good for overhyping.

  5. Posted December 16, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Lifetime Achievement Award surely Frederick Sanger?

    • Warren Terra
      Posted December 17, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      I think you may have misunderstood the nature of the competition. Sanger had a lifetime of achievement anyone would envy, and I don’t think winning one of these awards is meant to be enviable.

  6. Posted December 16, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink
  7. Mary
    Posted December 16, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I would like to nominate this gem. It’s a gift that keeps on giving too.

    I am not sure which category it belongs in though.

  8. Cheeky Monkey
    Posted December 16, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink
    • The Iron Chemist
      Posted December 17, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      Hey it sort of works on mice! We can all start smoking again!

    • miah
      Posted February 6, 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      I think the more miraculous story here is that randomly testing thousands and thousands of compounds to see if anything works has actually produced something even marginally worth writing about rather than being the giant waste of money and time it usually is… also I think this is the first time that approach has ever been described as NOT just throwing a bunch of crap against a wall to see what sticks, mostly because that’s basically what it freaking is….

  9. Will Be Ignored
    Posted December 16, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Most Egregious Failure to Cite Earlier Work

    Will you make fun of one of your own friends? This paper: fails to cite an entire field of work on predicting protein residue networks. Or compare their method to any of those methods. Of course, if it had, it wouldn’t have been in Nature Methods.

    • Jose
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      I enjoyed reading this paper but i’m NOT familiar with the field so I would never know if they are omitting previous work. Could you point me to references that started this work and were not cited here? Thanks!

  10. Rich Old White Dudes
    Posted December 16, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    For the lifetime achievement award, I’d like to nominate D.E. Shaw & his constant companion Ron Dror. They continually publish great nominations for all your categories. Of course, they can publish in Cell/Nature/Science whenever they want because they are rich. They buy papers in high impact journals because even CNS editors wish they had the kind of money Shaw has, and nobody wants to anger him.

  11. Mary
    Posted December 16, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Oh, wait–if we aren’t limited to genetics, can I also nominate the Oreo brain research?

    This one had so little substance, and such amazing headline consequences. Undergrad research project, very small, Oreos, cocaine, and it was a meeting presentation not a paper.

  12. Gabriel
    Posted December 16, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    – Most Overhyped Science Story of the Year: Bigfoot DNA sequenced.

    – Most Egregious Failure to Cite Earlier Work: Duon paper.

    – Most Creative Use of the Term “Junk DNA” to Overhype a New Paper about non-coding DNA: yo-mama-so-fat jokes on Twitter about non-coding DNA.

    – Lifetime Achievement Award – oh, this is easy: John Stamatoyannopoulos.

    • sparc
      Posted December 23, 2013 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

      Seconded. Especialy, the duon paper because it received a warm welcome from creationists and IDiots.

      • Miah
        Posted February 6, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

        I’d not heard that bit, but it makes me not like any of the massivly idiotic press coverage encode got for a while. Seriously, aparently the last few years of my life had been a lie, because I was studying something that according to the news reports had just been discovered by this wonderous thing called encode!

  13. Posted December 16, 2013 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    The most hyped paper:It was hyped as a ‘new ligament discovered in the knee’:

  14. Posted December 17, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  15. Steven Mofat
    Posted December 17, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    This article has so many glaring issues, but it says neuroscience so it must be right, right?

  16. Posted December 17, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Permalink
  17. Half Drunk
    Posted December 21, 2013 at 4:15 am | Permalink

    Mmm… Tough Poll.

    But my nominations about the most Hyped Science of 2013 goes ex-aequo to…….

    #1 BRD4 inhibitors and J Bradner. Difficult to match the Bostonian Publicity Machine.
    #2 SUPER-Enhancers.

    The LifeTime Achievement Award has no dispute for me: David Sinclair.
    Sirtuins, Resveratrol and Ageing. The XXth century version of the Holy Grail.

    Yet another example of the Bostonian Publicity Machine.
    It wasn’t true? It doesn’t matter. It was cool!
    Was there any penalty?
    Of course not, their new stories are also coming in CELL!!! (#luxuryjournals…)

  18. Vasya Pupkin
    Posted December 22, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    #1: Super-Enhancers
    #2: Duons
    #3: Origins of genomic ‘dark matter’ (aka ‘junk DNA’) discovered:
    #4: ENCODE

    • miah
      Posted February 6, 2014 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      you are now one of my favorite persons. Possibly my most perfect list, especially number 4!

  19. sparc
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    I nominate Extensive transcriptional heterogeneity revealed by isoform profiling by Vicent Pelechano, Wu Wei & Lars M. Steinmetz and the accompanying EMBL press release because they claim that evolution could happen without mutation:

    Our data set reveals the extent of transcript isoform diversity in the yeast genome at unprecedented resolution. Since most yeast genes have fewer than one mRNA molecule per cell, the sheer number of isoforms detected here, even within a single environmental condition, indicates that every cell in a clonal population has a unique transcriptome in terms of RNA abundance, sequence and thus regulatory potential. Such cell-to-cell heterogeneity may confer evolutionary advantages, enabling more rapid adaptation of the species to unforeseen
    environmental challenges.

    (emphasis mine)

  20. sparc
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    The extent of functionality in the human genome in which John Mattick and Marcel Dinger try to defend ENCODE and functionality of junk DNA surely should be considered. They indeed suggest

    that resistance to these findings is further motivated in some quarters by the use of the dubious concept of junk DNA as evidence against intelligent design.

    In addition, it becomes clear that they still didn’t get that the onion test is not only about the observation

    that some organisms (like some amoebae, onions, some arthropods, and amphibians) have much more DNA per cell than humans, but cannot possibly be more developmentally or cognitively complex, implying that eukaryotic genomes can and do carry varying amounts of unnecessary baggage.

    but rather the fact that organisms of comparable complexity like different onion species may contain genomes differing substantially (by a factor of 5 in the case of onions).

    It should be noted that the article from the HUGO journal which in addition qualifies for the Left-handed DNA Hall of Fame.

  21. Is it too late?
    Posted January 14, 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink
  22. Posted January 26, 2014 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    “Harvard Study Confirms Fluoride Reduces Children’s IQ”

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