Image: Sun Records compilation; photo © Chris Light CC BY-SA 4.0
Most scientific papers (and definitely most of mine) are pretty dull. That is, the results may be important and interesting, but the papers themselves – the text – tend to be dry, colourless, even tedious. That’s partly because we work so hard to remove authorial voice; it’s partly because we favour complex passive-voice constructions laden with jargon and acronyms; and it’s partly because we avoid humour like the plague. At least, most of the time.
I say “most of the time” because everyone can point to an example or two of a paper that includes a joke. Actually, paper titles that include jokes (or at least puns) aren’t all that uncommon; and nor are jokes in acknowledgements. But jokes in the text of scientific papers are much rarer – which is why we cling tight to our favourite examples. I think the rarity of jokes in papers is a shame, myself. Why couldn’t a paper be fun to read – as long, of course, as the fun doesn’t interfere with its clarity?
I don’t mean that just any joke will improve a paper. It should go without saying that sexist, racist, homophobic, and other corrosive attempts at humour have no place in our literature (or in science more generally). A more interesting question has to do with the accessibility of jokes. Some jokes rely on readers understanding a cultural reference, or (with puns) a piece of language. If a reader who misses the joke would end up confused, there’s a trolley-problem discussion to be had: when are we willing to confuse n1 readers in order to entertain n2 readers? I’ll leave that discussion for another day, except to suggest that the ideal joke might be one that sidesteps the trolley because it simply wouldn’t be noticed by the readers who don’t get it.
I’ve tried twice in my career to insert a joke into a paper. I failed once, and succeeded once, and while my sample size is small I think my experience is instructive. Each time, the joke was one that I’d argue belongs to that ideal category – essentially unnoticeable to those who don’t get it.
My successful joke insertion came in a recent review of the literature on “enemy escape”. In ecology, a population is often limited in size by a natural enemy (a predator, a parasite, a pathogen). If that enemy is removed, so is the limitation on population growth. That’s enemy escape, and it happens via a remarkably diverse set of mechanisms – for example, following biological invasions, during host shifts, near range edges, via trophic cascades, and so on. These mechanisms are the subject of largely independent literatures, and we tried to synthesize them in the review with the aid of a flow chart to point out commonalities and differences among mechanisms. That flow chart had pathways labeled 1a, 1b, 2a, and 2b. One mechanism for enemy escape (host shifting) might follow pathway 2a or 2b: so a summary table got the following footnote*:
What happened next? Not much. A screenshot got a bunch of likes on Twitter, and a bunch of people downloaded and read the paper (I’m pretty sure more than would have downloaded and read the joke-free version). But the universe didn’t end; my reputation as a serious scientist doesn’t seem much worse than it was before; and nobody has written to me (yet) to accuse me of perverting our sacred literature.
Which brings me to the attempt that failed. This was in a paper about the population genetics of a threatened plant species (an aster, Symphiotricum laurentianum). Although many of its florets lack stamens, it seems to mostly self-pollinate – which means pollen somehow has to get from floret to floret within the daisy-like flower head. There’s no evidence that pollinators are involved, so we suggested that this probably happens by mechanical transfer of pollen as plants move, in the wind or otherwise. In the draft manuscript: “there is, however, considerable evidence (Houle 1988) for pollen transfer among florets…by wind or shaking (Hall et al. 1957)”. What’s the Hall et al. reference? The attentive reader, checking the Literature Cited, would have discovered that it’s the writing credit for Jerry Lee Lewis’s classic song Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. Unfortunately, we had an attentive reviewer, who wrote “although I appreciated the levity from the reference Hall et al (1957) I think it is not appropriate for a scientific publication”. We dropped the joke (although in hindsight I wish I’d fought harder).
Our attentive reviewer’s stance wasn’t that our particular joke was a bad one. Instead, it seemed to be that any joke is inappropriate in the literature. Sagi and Yechiam (2008) put it this way: “traditionally, scientific publication is considered a serious matter, and humor seems antithetical to it”. This attitude seems widespread, but I just can’t figure out what horrible thing would happen to us if we decided that some humour wasn’t antithetical to good science. We use humour in science outreach; we use humour in conference presentations; we use humour in seminars; we even use humour in titles and acknowledgements. Are we afraid that if we use humour in the text of a paper, readers will decide we can’t possibly be right about our statistical analysis? Are we afraid that if we use humour in a paper, other scientists won’t hire us, give us tenure, or award us grants? Are we afraid that if we use humour in a paper, politicians and members of the public will reject our scientific credentials and start to doubt the consensus on global climate change, evolution, or the safety and efficacy of vaccines? Or gravity?
Our literature will never be Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or Good Omens, or BossyPants. That doesn’t mean we can’t have the occasional giggle in our science – but, it seems, only if we can overcome a nontrivial no-fun-in-science faction. Who’s with me?
© Stephen Heard June 4, 2019
The “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” story is told in more detail in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook for scientific writers. It’s in Chapter 28.
*^You will note that nowhere in this post do I claim that our “2b or not 2b” joke is terribly original – only that my coauthors and I succeeded in publishing it. If you’d like to read the full paper (and please do) it’s here.