Most-read research stories of 2020

College of Arts and Sciences - Washington State University.In a year dominated by COVID-19, popular research news played on questions of how things could get worse, or how we might leave this troubled planet altogether. Overall, news stories about WSU research that did the best still had a focus on real world impact.

CAS faculty featured in five of the top 10 most popular stories, and were well-represented in the next 90-plus press releases tracked by WSU News.

WSU communicators produced more than 100 research-related press releases in 2020, helping disseminate the knowledge gained while elevating WSU’s national and international profile as a leading public research university. WSU News staff analyzed each story using Meltwater media tracking software for its total potential audience reach. These reach numbers are quite large as they are based on each media outlets’ circulation or viewership added together. While the numbers contain duplicates, given that many people consume news and information from multiple outlets that might report on the same developments, it can give a sense of how far and wide a story travelled.

Below are the most-read CAS research stories of 2020. The top five include potential reach numbers, a sample of the resulting media articles, and some possible reasons for their success, followed by a list of other popular CAS research stories in order of their reach.

Some planets may be better for life than Earth

2.22 billion

CNNFox NewsForbesGizmodo

The idea of “superhabitable” planets, worlds that might be better than our own, caught a lot of people’s imaginations across the globe. Astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an adjunct professor in the WSU School of the Environment also with the Technical University in Berlin, and his colleagues came up with a set of characteristics that are better for life and found 24 of these potentially wonderful planets.

Study: Organic molecules discovered by Curiosity Rover consistent with early life on Mars

980 million

Daily MailDaily BeastCNETNY Post

The possibility of life on other planets is always a big draw as is proven again by this story based on another paper led by Schulze-Makuch that came out even before COVID‑19 lockdowns started making life on Earth a bit difficult.

Tasmanian devils may survive their own pandemic

728.34 million

U.S. News & World ReportSmithsonianScience

In a dark year, a bright spot of good news for the iconic Tasmainan devil gained a lot of attention. The method used to trace the evolution of the transmissible cancer afflicting the devil may also help scientists learn more about other genetically complex pathogens. The work led by WSU biologist Andrew Storfer and recent WSU Ph.D. Austin Patton not only made the prestigious journal Science but was featured in their podcast as well as numerous mainstream media sites.

Cannabis reduces OCD symptoms by half in the short-term

361.91 million

ForbesInternational Business TimesConsumer Affairs

Cannabis is a notoriously difficult thing to study in the U.S. and that has created a real craving for news about its potential benefits. The analysis that psychologist Carrie Cuttler did using self-reported data from the Strainprint app provided some real-world information about this understudied drug.

New study to examine benefits, risks of breastfeeding during COVID‑19 infection

245.98 million

Daily MailMSN Health

While it is rare for the start of a study to make news, a similar recently completed study in China was making headlines at the same time that this WSU call for study participants went out, resulting in a surprise mention from the widely circulated Daily Mail in the UK, among other places.

Other CAS research stories in the Top 100


See the full list at WSU News.

Complied by Sara Zaske, WSU Insider