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Banana for scale: Gauging trends in academic interest by normalising publication rates to common and innocuous keywords

by   Edwin S. Dalmaijer, et al.

Many academics use yearly publication numbers to quantify academic interest for their research topic. While such visualisations are ubiquitous in grant applications, manuscript introductions, and review articles, they fail to account for the rapid growth in scientific publications. As a result, any search term will likely show an increase in supposed "academic interest". One proposed solution is to normalise yearly publication rates by field size, but this is arduous and difficult. Here, we propose an simpler index that normalises keywords of interest by a ubiquitous and innocuous keyword, such as "banana". Alternatively, one could opt for field-specific keywords or hierarchical structures (e.g. PubMed's Medical Subject Headings, MeSH) to compute "interest market share". Using this approach, we uncovered plausible trends in academic interest in examples from the medical literature. In neuroimaging, we found that not the supplementary motor area (as was previously claimed), but the prefrontal cortex is the most interesting part of the brain. In cancer research, we found a contemporary preference for cancers with high prevalence and clinical severity, and notable declines in interest for more treatable or likely benign neoplasms. Finally, we found that interest in respiratory viral infections spiked when strains showed potential for pandemic involvement, with SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 pandemic being the most extreme example. In sum, the time is ripe for a quick and easy method to quantify trends in academic interest for anecdotal purposes. We provide such a method, along with software for researchers looking to implement it in their own writing.


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