Papers are the currency of the academic world. All academics know that they must “publish or perish” in an environment where resources are slim and competition is fierce.
But that doesn’t stop us from having some fun with our papers. Entertaining titles, jokes, hidden surprises, and even the occasional hoax can be found in just about every field of research.
Over the years that I’ve been a researcher, some papers have been outstanding in their field for reasons other than the quality and impact of their science. Papers that win an Ig Nobel Prize for research that “makes people laugh, and then think”, such as the fact that the Duration of urination does not change with body size, usually raise a smile. But there are many famous papers that have risen to prominence based on subtle jokes, or even bare-faced cheek.
Here are some of the best.
My cat is my co-author
If you’ve ever tried to read some scientific papers, you will probably have encountered some of the most awful applications of the English language you will ever find outside of a Patrick White novel. Apart from a debilitating density of acronyms and jargon, you will encounter passive language, awkward grammar, and obfuscatory exposition that the authors have felt pressured to write in order to make their work sound more “professional”. These are fashions that have built up in scientific writing over the past century and the sooner these fashions die, the better off science and society will be.
Many scientific journals enforce these awful writing practices in their writing guidelines. For no good reason, authors are often not allowed to use the first-person singular “I”, while many journals go on to ban their contributors from using the “royal we”. Authors working on their own are not allowed to write “I constructed the apparatus…” or “We constructed the apparatus…” and so often have little recourse but to resort to the passive “The apparatus was constructed…”.
In 1975, Jack Hetherington, a physicist at Michigan State University, was attempting to get his research on low-temperature physics published. The journal would not let him use “I” or “we”. Not wanting to re-write his manuscript, he decided to find a co-author.
Not wanting to give another physicist credit for work they did not do, he enlisted the help of his cat Chester.
Heatherington added F. D. C. Willard (for Felis domesticus Chester Willard) as a co-author to his paper on “Two-, Three-, and Four-Atom Exchange Effects in bcc ³He” which was published in November 1975.
The paper is a significant contribution in its own right, but when the cat got out of the bag that Hetherington had a feline co-author, the paper became famous. F. D. C. Willard published another paper in 1980, as a sole author, in French, was credited in the acknowledgements of a number of other papers, and has inspired a number of copycats.
Often the most important part of a scientific paper is the abstract. This short summary of the paper is the basis on which other academics decide whether to read the rest of the paper, or to ignore it. A well written abstract will be short, concise, and in some cases, convey enough information for the reader to get the conclusion of the paper without even reading any further.
But there are some extreme cases.
Although not the shortest abstract ever written, the honour of which goes to a paper about the life of Nobel Prize-winning chemist Robert Burns Woodward with an abstract that just reads “Blue”, the abstract of the next paper may be the shortest that actually conveys useful information.
In 2011, the revelation that neutrinos, tiny, sub-atomic particles that barely interact with normal matter, move faster than the speed of light sent the scientific community into a frenzy. Although the effect was later traced to a faulty timing signal, before the error was discovered theoretical physicists around the globe scrambled to explain the new and exciting phenomenon.
Four such physicists attempted to explain the finding in a paper titled: Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement?
Their abstract summarized their findings very concisely.
A very short paper
While the honour of “shortest paper ever written” goes to The unsuccessful self-treatment of a case of “writer’s block”, there are more serious papers conveying real results that take little more than seconds to read. Possibly the shortest is Counterexample to Euler’s conjecture on sums of like powers published by L. J. Lander and T. R. Parkin in 1966.
The paper is reproduced below in its entirety.
Lander and Parkin used a computer to brute-force search for a set of numbers that disproved a conjecture by the great mathematician Euler that you needed at least five numbers raised to the power of five to be added together to equal another number raised to the power of five.
With academics desperate to publish as often as they can, it is not surprising that there are thousands of fraudulent journals masquerading as quality, peer-reviewed publications, inviting them to submit their work for a fee. I get several emails each week from such “predatory” journals, and my spam filter catches dozens more. Many of my more seasoned research colleagues receive several of these emails a day.
With such annoying tenacity from journals whose only threshold for publication is that you pay them (while they pretend that your submission was reviewed by an expert), it was only a matter of time before some researchers decided to have a bit of fun.
Over the years, dozens of researchers and research groups have submitted clearly flawed or fake papers to predatory journals to expose them. One of the more recent and amusing examples is Testing Inter-hemispheric Social Priming Theory in a Sample of Professional Politicians-A Brief Report by Gary Lewis.
Lewis’s hoax paper reported that in a sample of UK politicians (including Boris Johnski and Theresa Maybe) right-wing politicians tended to wipe their bottom with their left hand, while left-wing politicians tended to use their right hand. (Except in the case of a Mr Jeremiah Doorbin, who used a “munchkin from The Sound of Music”. The paper does not elaborate how Mr Doorbin used the munchkin.)
Right; Grid-reference; Wrong; Planet
While Lewis’s politician bottom-wiping paper is amusing, it pales in comparison to the work of comedic gold that is The integration of GIS, remote sensing, expert systems and adaptive co-kriging for environmental habitat modeling of the Highland Haggis using object-oriented, fuzzy-logic and neural-network techniques by Oleg McNoleg.
This paper has everything: unnecessary overuse of the most fashionable jargon terms, absolutely absurd content, amusing foot notes, puns, jokes about Scotland, and my favourite keyword list of all time – Right; Grid-reference; Wrong; Planet. I strongly encourage you to go and read it. It’s a good laugh.
But what really sets the Haggis paper apart is the outstanding quality of the writing. While the writing guidelines of most journals make for awkward reading, this paper adheres to all of the most common guidelines while still being beautifully written. It is clear and concise despite being absolutely bonkers. If researchers took greater care to write like this, the quality of scientific communication around the world would be much better than it is today. In future, when writing my papers, I will try to copy the style of McNoleg, and I will encourage others to do the same.