The funny papers on my CV

Most of my CV is pretty conventional.  It recites my job and educational history, lists my papers and talks, my students and the courses I’ve taught… and I can hear you yawning from here.  But my favourite part is comes at the end of my publication list, which has four sections.  The first is “Book” (some day it will be “Books”, but so far there’s just The Scientist’s Guide to Writing), then there’s “Refereed papers”, then “Non-refereed works”, and then finally the good part: “And with tongue in cheek”.  My tongue-in-cheek section lists two papers, and each is a joke.

steve-backThe first joke paper resulted from Project Steve, a National Center for Science Education effort to support the teaching of evolution in K-12 science classrooms. In brief, the NCSE asked scientists named Steve (and Stephanie, Stefan, Esteban, etc.) to sign a statement in support of teaching evolution, to counter and poke fun at anti-evolution lists compiled by creationist organizations*.  Signatories got free T-shirts, and the organizers cleverly used the T-shirt size data to test for Bergmann’s rule and insular dwarfism (two famous patterns of geographic variations in body size) among human Steves.  The results were published as The Morphology of Steve in the Annals of Improbable Research, with all the Steves as coauthors (perhaps that should be “coauthors”, with scare quotes).  That’s right, I’m an author – and so is Stephen Hawking, and I will treasure forever my coauthorship with Stephen Hawking (among several hundred other Steves).  Even Sheldon Cooper hasn’t achieved that**.

The other joke paper is The Centrifugal Theory of Species Diversitty***LinkCentrifugal.  I wrote this very short paper as a grad student as… um, well, I’m not quite sure what it is. Maybe it’s best understood as a parody of ecology’s fondness for sweeping and simple explanations for complex patterns?  Anyway, it’s very short, people have found it quite funny, and I’ll be forever pleased but somewhat mystified that the ESA Bulletin published it.

The image of the “tongue in cheek” section above is from the “archival” 37-page version of my CV (yes, you read that right).  Nobody actually sees that version; I just use it to keep track of stuff.  So when I make shorter CVs to send various places, do I leave the “tongue in cheek” section in?  Yes, I do – but if it was your CV, I wouldn’t necessarily advise you to make the same decision.  It would depend on your career stage, and I think that’s too bad.  Let me explain.

I know that my two joke papers don’t enhance my CV; they don’t speak to my accomplishments as a scientist.  I leave them in because when I have to read a stack of CVs, I’m usually desperate for a spark of life, for some whimsy to lift my administratively dulled spirits. But while the funny bits on my CV can’t help me, they can hurt me.  There are scientists out there who think jokes or whimsy are unprofessional and detract from science in general (I know; I’ve heard from some of them).  Such folk will think less of me for including the jokes on my CV.

So: I can’t win, but I can lose, and I play the game anyway.  I’ll forgive you if you consider this excellent evidence that I’m a brick or two short of a load***.  But here’s my thinking:  I’m employed and tenured in a job I never intend to leave; if a few folks react negatively to the jokes on my CV, my career isn’t in jeopardy.  For an early-career scientist, the stakes would be higher, and I can’t recommend that early-career folk follow my lead.  But I’d like to be able to give different advice.  So I’m trying to invest a little bit of my career-stage privilege in normalizing the idea that we can have fun doing science – and that we can be proud of the fun we have.

I know, two jokes on my CV aren’t going to change the world.  At least, not all by themselves.  The last chapter of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing (about beauty, whimsy, and humour in scientific writing) is another try at the same thing.  Everyone who has claimed an amusing way of determining authorship order is chipping in, as well.  Let’s keep this up.

© Stephen Heard ( October 11, 2016

*^The point being, sure, you can list a few PhDs who think we should teach creationism; but we can list a whole lot more who support evolution, and we only bothered asking the ones named “Steve”.  The choice of “Steve” honoured Stephen Jay Gould, who had passed away not long before.

**^This paper also gives me an Erdős number of 4. If you don’t know what this is, well, you are not as big a nerd as I am… but it’s a 6-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon-style count of coauthorship connections back to the mathematician Paul Erdős.  Surprisingly, my 4-count goes not through Stephen Hawking but through Steven Weinberg.  Among biologists, an Erdős number of 4 is almost as good as exists (but damn you, Rich Lenski, and your Erdős number of 3!).

***^An extraction or two short of a 96-well plate?


7 thoughts on “The funny papers on my CV

  1. Elizabeth Moon

    In my amateur, not-a-real-scientist experience, considering the scientists I’ve studied with and/or met, the ones with a sense of humor and willingness to joke some about their own work struck me as more intelligent, more creative in seeing new possibilities in their area of research, than the dour souls who were disgusted at the very thought of levity in the lab. They also expressed a dislike of “popular” science and outreach to the laity that suggested contempt for anyone who had a different style of teaching or research.

    This exposure to scientists included geologists, archaeologists, biologists, physicists, and chemists at three very different universities in the course of obtaining one non-science degree, one science degree, and part of a graduate science degree, and that list doesn’t include the two community colleges at which I also took science classes. A small, but at least varied, sample. I came away with the conviction that the deadly-serious scientists were trying to impress students (and other faculty maybe) in lieu of being able to do so with brilliance–this may be unfair, of course. And I do recognize the eagerness of some non-scientists and anti-science persons to seize on any joke by a scientist as evidence that all of them are kooky, lazy, and worthless. But still.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chris Mebane

    The buzz around then early career researcher Frank Rahel’s interview for a position at the University of Wyoming is legendary because of his breakthrough publication on a new branch of ecology, the study of ecologists (“The Habitus of Ecologists: Fear and Clothing at Penn State. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. 1983. 64(3): 219-220. He showed that defining traits of male ecologists included thickness of facial hair, tan pants, and Swiss Army Knives. [Clearly this study has not stood the test of time. Are male ecologists still more readily identifiable as dorks than female ecologists?] Whatever else he had done up to that point was apparently adequate to get hired but nobody remembers.

    However, I nominate for Best in Class, the Danish ecologist Kaj Sand-Jenson’s contribution “How to write consistently boring scientific literature. Oikos. 116(5): 723-727.” It should be required reading for all Squirrel fans. Highly perceptive, useful, and had it not hit so close to home, it would have been funny. His top 10 recommendations for all serious publishing ecologists are to:
    1. Avoid focus
    2. Avoid originality and personality
    3. Write l o n g contributions
    4. Remove implications and speculations
    5. Leave out illustrations
    6. Omit necessary steps of reasoning
    7. Use many abbreviations and terms
    8. Suppress humor and flowery language
    9. Degrade biology to statistics
    10. Quote numerous papers for trivial statements



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