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3 things that happen when your research paper hits the headlines

This study overturned a widely held assumption about competitive cycling and sparked an animated discussion online

Experimental setup of 121 quarter-scale cyclist models in the wind tunnel at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. The research was sponsored by US-based multinationals ANSYS and Cray. (Source: Bert Blocken, Eindhoven University of Technology and KU Leuven)
Experimental setup of 121 quarter-scale cyclist models in the wind tunnel at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. The research was sponsored by US-based multinationals ANSYS and Cray. (Source: Bert Blocken, Eindhoven University of Technology and KU Leuven)

Prof. Bert Blocken, PhDWhen Prof. Bert Blocken and his team at at Eindhoven University of Technology and KU Leuven in Belgium set about researching wind resistance in packs of cyclists, they were investigating a common myth in cycling aerodynamics.

The research, sponsored by US based multinationals ANSYS and Cray, looked into the amount of wind resistance cyclists experience based on their position in the pack – or peloton, in cycling terms.

When the resulting open access research paper was published in Elsevier’s Journal of Wind Engineering & Industrial Aerodynamics, it was seized upon by the press and cycling enthusiasts, as well as by those who twisted the import of the paper to deride the efforts of cyclists in the Tour de France. Prof. Blocken said:

I’ve never seen that many downloads in such a short space of time – I think we had about 20,000 in a few weeks. We knew the article would create some interest, but it can be difficult to judge – sometimes you think something will be well read, and it doesn’t happen; other times a piece of research will soar unexpectedly.

When that happens and your paper hits the headlines, there are a few things you can expect to happen.

1. Things blow up on social media.

Plum Metrics on ScienceDirect reveals social media activity as well as mentions in the news and on blogs and other media.

Previous research, conducted with small numbers of in-line cyclists models lead to the expectation that the air resistance of a cyclist cycling inside a peloton was about half that of a cyclist cycling alone. Over time, that figure of 50 percent wind resistance was adopted as the truth and appeared in articles, books and reports on cycling.

“It was a figure that could not be correct, however,” said Prof. Blocken, explaining the impetus behind his research: “We’d done computer simulations and wind tunnel tests with four cycling dummies lined up. Dummies 3 and 4 indeed get that 50 percent wind resistance, but whether there’s two people or 100 people in front of you has to make a difference.”

So, Prof. Blocken and his team set up a large experiment with 121 cyclist dummies, a wind tunnel and a world-record computer simulation. They found that cyclists deep in the pack would experience far less than the 50 percent wind resistance – sometimes as low as 10 percent and sometimes even lower. “It corresponded with what open and honest professional cyclists tell us – if they’re well sheltered in the peloton, they hardly have to cycle at all.”

Drag of every cyclist in Peloton A as a percentage of the drag of an isolated cyclist riding at the same speed. (Source: Bert Blocken, et al: Journal of Wind Engineering & Industrial Aerodynamics, 2018)

The research overturned a widely held assumption and sparked an animated discussion among cycling fans on the internet:

What you see is essentially three types of responses. The vast majority are quite positive, take an active interest and maybe ask some additional questions. Then you have two extremes – one group saying ‘yes, we knew this already,’ and the other saying ‘we don’t believe it, therefore it’s not true.’ The latter two groups clearly contradict each other, and neither of them is correct. But it incites a lot of discussion on social media – that’s quite interesting to look at from a distance.

As passionate as the cycling community can be, it’s far from the only area of science that prompts polarized opinions. Does Prof. Blocken have any advice for researchers who find that their research being caught up in the fray of social media?

“Most of the time, try to let it go by,” he said. “You will get some very harsh and impolite reactions, especially on Twitter where people sometimes let go of decency. Sometimes I engage and write some counter-arguments. But it would be a full time job to react to everything.”

2. You get to showcase a different kind of impact.

PlumX metrics appear beside each article in ScienceDirect, revealing activity in five categories: usage, captures, mentions, social media, and citations. See the PlumX dashboard for this article.

Historically, one of the most visible ways to measure the impact of research was to look at the citations. However, with tools like Plum Analytics integrated into Elsevier’s ScienceDirect and Scopus platforms, it’s easy to track a variety of metrics, such as people storing a paper in their Mendeley library, mentioning it on social media, or indeed reporting on it in a news outlet. Each of these metrics are increasingly becoming recognized by universities as valid expressions of success.

“This is something that is changing quite fast in universities worldwide,” Prof. Blocken said, referring to press coverage in particular. “When I started working here in Eindhoven in 2006, we had one press officer. Now we have five. That alone indicates that that universities are more concerned about their image.”

A high profile and a good image may be valuable to the university, but Prof. Blocken points out that it’s becoming increasingly possible to use such metrics to showcase one’s own success:

Starting this year at Eindhoven University of Technology, the research in our department will be peer evaluated also based on media mentions and appearances. Also, national and European funding organizations are increasingly focusing on media coverage. Things are really moving in that direction, where impact is not only measured y citations. That’s one reason I like what Elsevier has done with Plum X and the Mendeley dashboard – you’re giving insights into more than just citations.

3. You have a mixed experience with the press.

The media play a vital role in connecting the public with scientific research, and as Prof. Blocken outlined, that’s something universities are encouraging researchers to think about as they do their research. “I don’t think scientific articles themselves will change in style and content, but you’re starting to see a rise in additional published documents that explain the research in layman’s terms,” he said. “For the last few years, at Eindhoven University of Technology, as a PhD student, you are now requested to provide a one-page layman’s summary when you go to defend your PhD thesis. That summary will then be distributed to the press. This is a very good initiative, not only for the university, the media and the public, but also for the PhD candidate.”

When the paper was published, it was picked up by numerous press outlets. Some reported it accurately; others saw it as an opportunity to deride the efforts of professional cyclists. Prof. Blocken said:

Sometimes the media misrepresent a study with no negative intention, but sometimes they misrepresent it a bit on purpose. I think in some cases that happened here – it was used as an opportunity to put the riders’ efforts in a less positive perspective  and suggest that anyone could ride super-fast in the peloton, and that it’s actually more effort as a single cyclist to ride to a bakery. When you’ve spent a year and a half performing the research, being meticulous and reporting everything in as complete a way as possible, that can be a bit painful.

On other occasions, Prof. Blocken saw the research being used in a much more constructive way:

There was one discussion on Twitter where someone from a pro-cycling team stepped in and said, ‘If you want to know what this is about, you need to read the full article.’ That was good – it created a positive discussion, and of course you can have really positive experiences with the press. When you see your work reported by the BBC and The Wall Street Journal, and they bring it to life for a general audience, that is absolutely fantastic!

Lead researcher Prof. Bert Blocken

Prof. Bert Blocken is a civil engineer and full professor in the Department of the Built Environment at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands and part-time full professor at the Department of Civil Engineering at KU Leuven in Belgium. His areas of expertise are urban physics, wind engineering and sports aerodynamics. He has published 158 papers in international peer-reviewed journals. According to the 2016 Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai Ranking) and Elsevier, he is one of the 150 most cited researchers worldwide in both Civil Engineering and Energy Science & Engineering. He is editor of the journal Building and Environment and associate editor of the Journal of Wind Engineering & Industrial Aerodynamics. He is a member of the editorial board of the journals Building Simulation, Sports Engineering and the International Journal of Ventilation. He is leading a research team of six senior researchers, 29 PhD students and five MSc students.

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