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Reddit: The Front Page of Science?

Reddit is a forum and conversation-based website and the self-proclaimed front page of the internet, receiving the 6th largest amount of traffic in the world. In October 2018 alone it attracted 1.6 billion unique visitors. Reddit comprises of nearly 1.2 million communities known as ‘subreddits’, each devoted to specific topics. If you can imagine it (or even if you can’t for that matter) you can bet there is a subreddit for it. From r/politics, which is somewhat self-explanatory to r/birdswitharms, which is devoted to photoshopping human arms onto birds, it’s all there. People use Reddit as a place for discussing interesting topics or for seeking answers to questions they have and it has managed to garner a reputation for being a large but generally good community. Below are the top 40 subreddits ranked by the number of subscribers they have…

#1 - r/Funny:
23.1 million subscribers. Reddit's largest humour depository.


#2 - r/AskReddit:
21.7 million subscribers. The place to ask and answer thought provoking questions.


#3 - r/Gaming:
21.0 million subscribers. Anything related to games - video, board and card games etc.


#4 - r/Pics:
20.9 million subscribers. A place for the sharing of pics and photographs.


#5 - r/Science:
20.7 million subscribers. A place for the sharing and discussion of new scienctific research.


#6 - r/WorldNews:
20.6 million subscribers. A place for major news from around the world.


#7 - r/TodayILearned:
20.4 million subscribers. Interesting facts people learned today.


#8 - r/Videos:
19.7 million subscribers. The best place for video content of all kinds.


#9 - r/Movies:
19.6 million subscribers. News and discussion about major motion pictures.


#10 - r/Aww:
19.6 million subscribers. Things that make you go "AWW!"


#11 - r/Music:
19.0 million subscribers. The musical community of reddit.


#12 - r/IAmA:
18.8 million subscribers. Devoted to AMA's of any topic.


#13 - r/Gifs:
17.8 million subscribers. A place to swap and share gifs.


#14 - r/News:
17.7 million subscribers. Real news articles relating to the US and rest of the world.


#15 - r/EarthPorn:
17.1 million subscribers. Community of landscape photographers sharing the beauty of our planet.


#16 - r/Blog:
17.0 million subscribers. The official Reddit Blog page.


#17 - r/AskScience:
17.0 million subscribers. Ask a science question, get a science answer.


#18 - r/ExplainLikeImFive:
16.5 million subscribers. The best place for layperson-friendly explanations.


#19 - r/ShowerThoughts:
16.5 million subscribers. Sharing of the small epiphanies that highlight the odd.


#20 - r/Books:
15.9 million subscribers. The discussion of books, authors genres and publishing.


#21 - r/Jokes:
15.6 million subscribers. Hundreds of jokes everyday.


#22 - r/MildlyInteresting:
15.6 million subscribers. Stuff that's mildly interesting.


#23 - r/LifeProTips:
15.5 million subscribers. Tips that improve your life.


#24 - r/Television:
15.3 million subscribers. General discussion for television new, reviews, clips and more.


#25 - r/DIY:
15.3 million subscribers. All things related to DIY.


#26 - r/Food:
15.1 million subscribers. Cooking, recipes, restuarants… talk about it here.


#27 - r/Space:
15.0 million subscribers. The sharing and discussion of space things.


#28 - r/Sports:
14.9 million subscribers. Central hub for sports on reddit.


#29 - r/Gadgets:
14.8 million subscribers. Discussion, reviewing and enjoying gadgets.


#30 - r/NotTheOnion:
14.8 million subscribers. True but outlandish news stories.


#31 - r/Art:
14.6 million subscribers. The discussion and sharing of arts.


#32 - r/PhotoshopBattles:
14.5 million subscribers. The place for photoshop contests.


#33 - r/UpliftingNews:
14.2 million subscribers. The place for sharing positive, uplifitng news stories.


#34 - r/GetMotivated:
14.2 million subscribers. A place to find motivation.


#35 - r/ListenToThis:
14.2 million subscribers. For the discovery of new and overlooked music.


#36 - r/Documentaries:
14.2 million subscribers. For the discussion and sharing of documentaries.


#37 - r/TIFU:
14.1 million subscribers. Stories of how people's day didn’t go according to plan.


#38 - r/History:
13.8 million subscribers. A subreddit discussing and sharing history.


#39 - r/Futurology:
13.7 million subscribers. Discussion of future studies and speculation about human development.


#40 - r/OldSchoolCool:
13.6 million subscribers. The sharing of photos of people in history looking cool.


One such subreddit is r/science, dedicated to the exploration, sharing and discussion of all things scientific. This is one of the most popular and active subreddits on the site acquiring large amounts of traffic and sharing of scientific knowledge. The good reputation of r/science has attracted scientists and non-scientists alike from across the globe to interact with each other in this freely accessible space. A unique part of Reddit are the ‘Ask Me Anything’ events or AMA’s, where professionals in the field hosts live interviews, answering any questions posed to them in a certain time frame. This has proved incredibly popular with the community and has even attracted high level celebrities to host AMA’s in r/science themselves, the likes of which include Neil de Grasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Steven Hawking and Elon Musk.

With science playing an increasingly important role in our politics, pop culture and everyday life, it is important for us to know where we stand. Yet, trying to understand all of the latest research we encounter and how they are relevant to our lives is important, if not also confusing. This is where Reddit enters the field… trying to understand or interact with the scientific community doesn’t have to be hard or scary for the normal folk and can be part of your everyday life.

By using Reddit as a proxy, we can analyze how the interests of the scientific community and the everyday people interacting with it have changed over the past few years. r/Science offers professional scientists to highlight they are such by sporting a ‘flair’, gained through an application process. When they comment or post this flair is displayed showing everyone their level and field of expertise. This great mechanic promotes conversation between these professionals and the everyday people. I mean, how many other places (freely accessible to everyone) can you go with any question that pops into your head and get a relevant answer from a professional in the field quickly?

We have taken data from googles Big Query database for this analysis, from December 2015 to October 2018. Over 180,000 posts and 3.3 million comments were made in this time, all of which have been sorted into 24 categories of science, allowing us to view the trends of the community. Below we can see the amount of comments made in each category over this time period, it is important to note the scale for each graph is relevant only to itself, this is done so we can analyze the trends going on within each category effectively. Some of the spikes in activity relate to very interesting conversations that were happening on the site at the time between normal people and scientists. Since this is the case, we thought we’d show you the most popular topics of conversation at the time, feel free to use your mouse to uncover this extra information. The text boxes also serve as a direct link to the topics in question so if you find yourself intrigued please follow the link to learn more!

Each category experiences its own peaks and troughs and are solely independent bearing no effect on each other. What we can see however, is that a lot of the peaks in activity relate very much to new and current research that is being produced and introduced to the Reddit community or real-world events. If we look at Animal Science we see that one of the most popular topics is “Current rate of extinction is 1,000 times faster than the predicted natural rate “ and if we look at the Scientific Community we see Steven Hawking’s death triggered a massive spike in activity where people paid tribute to one of the best minds to ever grace the scientific world. The conversation of current and relevant affairs in the scientific world is important and the fact it is happening here is great.

The ability to see if a professional has posted offers a unique opportunity to explore the interests of the professional scientific community and how or if their interests differed to the general public. Within r/science there are 3 different communities, that I believe reflect those of the ‘real world’:

1 – the professionals, they have access to the latest research first and a higher knowledge in their fields, this is the most exclusive group. This is the same as the real world.

2 – the non-professionals who post and share scientific information that they find interesting and want other people’s opinion on the matter. This can equate to the people who have an interest in science and bring up these topics.

3 – the commenters, this is by far the least exclusive group. This because it involves everyone, including those of the two previous groups, and everyone can weigh in on a conversation whether they have knowledge on the matter or not.

As in the real world these groups do mix and match, with the professionals and posters also being commenters, scientists are also normal people believe it or not. Through this we can see how the interests of each community differ and if they have any impact on each other. Here we take a wholistic view, looking at the totals each category received in each community over the 3-year period, shedding light on overall popularity. To achieve this a popularity score for each category was calculated with the following formula: (Number of Posts X Number of Professional Posts) / Number of Comments. This allows us to account for every interaction with each category and produce a relative score for each category.

We can see that Biology and Medicine are by far the most popular on this subreddit with Economics being the least popular. We can also see that the Posters and Professionals share a higher interest in Biology, Medicine and Health, but the comments community is on its own wavelength. Social Science for example, has a fairly average number of posts (4,363) and posts by professionals (349) but has the 3rd highest amount of comments (371,742). The overlap seen here between the professionals and the general posts is not too different from what happens in the real world. If scientists talk about a certain topic it can make its way into the general community via news or social media. The opposite can also be true, if the public are all up in arms about a certain topic, like the Zika virus outbreak, this warrants a response from the scientific community. In February 2018, the Falcon Heavy space rocket launched and there was massive news coverage sparking conversation and interest around the world. Then when we have questions, who do we turn to for answers? We have the professionals.

Instead of the wholistic view, we wanted to look at the topics discussed over time so we can establish real trends rather than a vague overview. Naturally then we looked at the most popular topic by month for each of the three communities:

In all 35 months and across all 3 communities, only 5 categories were most popular in any given month: Health, Biology, Psychology, Environment and Medicine. Here is where we start to see a strange pattern emerge, the most popular topics for the posters are only Health and Biology. The professionals were far more dynamic in this sense, with all 5 categories being the most popular at some point, while the comments community is largely restricted to Psychology and Health as its most popular topics.

The question of why there is such a disparity between the communities poses itself and I believe it has a simple answer. Accessibility. If we look at the professionals, the people with expertise, experience and access to the scientific community. Their trend can be attributed to the fact that they have greater access to the information of new interesting studies and research that is being produced across all fields. In my experience within the scientific community I can claim that scientists love all things science no matter what branch it comes from and have an urge to share this interest and communication of knowledge. But if we look at the posts and comments communities, we can see that Health and Psychology dominate the topic of conversation. This is simply because these are very relatable topics that everyone deals with in their day to day lives.

Everyone has experience with health concerns and mental health issues (the bulk of psychological topics discussed). This means that the pool of people that can interact with these topics is far larger than any of the others, more people can respond to questions and give input to others using their own experience. Whether this comes in the form of having lived with or helped someone with specific illnesses or themselves have been through certain ordeals. When talking about Astronomy on the other hand, black holes, neutron stars and exoplanets are not as easily accessible to the common person as how to brush your teeth.

If we look at the amount of comments certain topics receive (since the other communities also fit into this one) we can see this in action. The top 3 posts across the whole study period in Health with the most comments discuss: suicide, obesity and alcohol. These are things that unfortunately some or most people have experience with and thus have their own opinions about. Obesity is something always seen in the news and ignites the debate between the general public and health experts. With the USA making up 60% of Reddit traffic and having a 30% average national obese rate (, a large portion of the Reddit users probably have had some interaction with obesity in their lives. The top 3 posts in Psychology with the most amount of comments discuss: suicide, politics and spanking children. Again, these are not uncommon things. Regarding politics, everyone has some experience of it in their lives… or well at least I hope they have. This is a topic that people form very strong opinions and lines about, increasing the urge for people to comment and express their views.

Let’s compare those findings to what the top 3 posts with the most comments discuss in Astronomy: the possibility of hundreds of dead civilizations in the universe, Earth sized planets found orbiting a dwarf star and, how the comet that killed the dinosaurs triggered an ice age. Now if you are not an expert in these topics, which could you more quickly and easily have a conversation about? Politics or how thousands of advanced civilizations out in the cosmos have come and gone way before our time? I’m going to bet most of you will pick the former and are left scratching your heads at the latter, while a very interesting theory it is not one most people are accustomed to discussing.

So, by using Reddit to evaluate the trends in the online scientific community we have established that, like in the real-world, people interact with science with a varying degree of intensity and knowledge. Reddit followed the trends of real-world events, as we saw a united community in mourning in March 2018 when Steven Hawking passed away and a united community in awe and celebration just the month previous when the Falcon Heavy Rocket launched. This establishes that it is a good proxy for monitoring trends of the scientific community. We saw that the professionals who have a more direct access to the scientific world and information have a much broader interest than the general public. This makes sense, they have chosen this as their career path and in such a career they are in the pursuit of knowledge. The other communities then are much more focused on health and psychological topics which again makes sense, we all have lots of experience relating to these topics allowing us all to have detailed conversations about them.

Reddit is only growing, both as a platform for the everyday person and for those that we elevate up to celebrity status. Science, unfortunately is stuck behind the wall of politics, which is why for example the UK has an Antarctic program but not an Arctic one, despite it being 7,700 miles (12,390 kilometers) further away. As such Reddit could serve as a starting place for the borderless spread of knowledge as we move into the future. A place to learn and spread ideas, a platform where the common people and the scientific community can interact in a positive way. The discussion and spread of current and up-to-date studies is important as it can trigger people to re-establish their own paradigms and even inspire people to study it further, advancing knowledge for everyone.

S. Yamanaka discovered a process to reprogram adult skin cells into stem cells (2006). This was a huge step forward in medicine and has led to the research of regenerating human organs.

Picture credit: Nissim Benvenisty

Existence of dark matter confirmed for the first time, perhaps the most significant discovery in physics of the past century (2009).

Picture credit: Lucas Taylor (CERN)

Third and worst mass coral bleaching event in history (2015). Coral that experience high temperatures push out all their symbiotic algae and lose their color.

Picture credit: Caitlin Seaview Survey

Light imaged as both a particle and a wave for the first time (2015).

Photo credit: Fabrizio Carbone

NASA release a high-resolution image of the dwarf planet Pluto (2015).

Photo credit: NASA

Gravitational waves detected and confirmed for the first time exactly 100 years after Einstein predicted their existence (2016).

Photo credit: J. Hurt

Trappist-1, a star 12 times bigger than our Sun discovered 39 light years away which plays host to 7 planets in the habitable zone. Our best chance at finding life outside of our solar system (2017).

Photo credit: NASA

Dating of fossils found in Morocco suggest Homo sapiens evolved 300,000 years ago. Over 100,000 years than previously thought (2017).

Photo credit: Jean-Jacques Hublin

The successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket (2018). This is the most powerful rocket since the Apollo missions and marks great steps forward in private space travel.

Photo credit: SpaceX