It's No Joke: Humor Rarely Welcome in Research Write-Ups

September 29, 2014

Stephen Heard once wrote a paper about how pollen spreads among the flowers of a certain endangered plant. In it he speculated that the wind might play a role by shaking loose the pollen. To support his point, he cited "Hall et al., 1957"—a reference to the songwriters of the Jerry Lee Lewis hit "Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On." But a reviewer nixed Heard’s little joke. "Although I appreciated the levity of the reference," he wrote, "I think it is not appropriate for a scientific publication."

So is levity ever appropriate in a scientific publication? Mr. Heard, a professor of biology at the University of New Brunswick, thinks so, and in an essay titled "On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed?"—published in the always hilarious Ideas in Ecology and Evolution—he bemoans the buttoned-up super-seriousness of most published research, noting that amusing moments in the literature are "unusual enough that finding one is like sighting a glow-throated hummingbird or a Salt Creek tiger beetle: beautiful, but rare, tiny, and glimpsed in passing."

That is unfortunate, Mr. Heard believes, not because research papers can or should be laugh-a-minute, but because moments of lightness remind readers that this paper, like all papers, was written by an actual person, or several actual people, attempting to communicate an idea to other people. It’s not about that particular joke—Mr. Heard readily concedes that his song citation wasn’t comedy gold—but rather about the spirit of the interaction between writer and reader. "We sort of bludgeoned the humanity out of our writing over the last hundred years," says Mr. Heard, who is at work on a book about scientific writing. "If you go back, you see a lot more of it."

Why is that? In part because as science became more professional, the writing became less personal. What it gained in rigor it lost in verve.

Yet a dash of humanity can serve a practical function, contends Peter McGraw, the author, along with Joel Warner, of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny. Mr. McGraw, a psychologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, argues that how research is presented has "huge implications" for how willing readers are to accept it. "If you make it hard on the reader to understand what you’re writing, it makes it that much more difficult to convince that person," he says. "A well-placed quip, a well-executed joke—it hinges on it being well-executed—seems to help."

As Mr. Heard points out, the titles of academic articles often offer the most obvious opportunity for creativity. He mentions a paper called "Sex with knockout models: behavioral studies of estrogen receptor alpha." A blog called Easter Eggs in Scientific Papers includes this gem of a title: "The good, the bad, and the cell type-specific roles of hypoxia inducible factor-1 alpha in neurons and astrocytes." The title of a 2011 physics paper—"Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement?"—isn’t funny on its own. The abstract is the punchline: "Probably not."

Whether you chuckle or not, that’s clearer and more memorable than your average abstract. That goes to Mr. Heard’s point that "art enhances function" when it comes to scientific writing. "Readers may be more likely to read a paper that promises enjoyment, may be more likely to finish such a paper and remember (and cite) it later, and may be more likely to recommend an enjoyable paper to colleagues," he writes.

He’s not making the case for papers as pranks, though those can serve a purpose as well. In 2007, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a doctoral student named Doug Zongker presented a paper whose content was simply the word "chicken" repeated over and over. The title? "Chicken Chicken Chicken: Chicken Chicken."

It’s ridiculous, but because he so accurately imitated the form and pacing of an academic presentation, it became a comment on the rhetorical sameness of scientific papers. The laughter you hear during the low-quality video of the event is the laughter of recognition.

I asked editors at several prominent journals what they thought of Mr. Heard’s thesis and whether there were any examples from their own fields. "The record is very sad," wrote Andrew Abbott, editor of the American Journal of Sociology, via email. "Sociology is a largely humorless field, unfortunately." Mr. Abbott himself, though, appreciates a good gag, and he keeps a file of amusing papers. Among them is one that ran in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis way back in 1974. It’s by Dennis Upper, a psychologist, and the title is "The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of ‘Writer’s Block.’" As you might have guessed, it’s blank. A comment from a reviewer is included in a footnote: "Clearly it is the most concise manuscript I have ever seen—yet it contains sufficient detail to allow other investigators to replicate Dr. Upper’s failure."

Over at the prestigious journal Science, Jake Yeston, the deputy editor for research in the physical sciences, said lighter moments are few and far between, in part because the audience for the journal is international and humor is often culturally dependent. The pun from the Italian researcher might fall flat in Thailand.

But the editors do, on occasion, let a joke slip in. In December of 1999, Science ran a tongue-in-cheek piece in its commentary section titled "Y2K." This was not about fear of a computer bug bringing civilization to a standstill; rather, it was about the obscure molecule diyttrium potassium, the chemical symbol for which is Y2K. The authors ­really analyzed the molecule and included charts and graphs. Presumably fellow chemists LOL’d.

You might imagine there'd be more humor in the humanities, but it's not so, according to Robert Caserio, an editor at the Journal of Modern Literature. "There aren't enough Mark Twains among us," Mr. Caserio complained.

I also contacted Penny Goldberg, a professor of economics at Yale University and editor of the American Economic Review, to ask if she could think of any joke, any tiny moment of amusement, one solitary witticism that has passed across her desk. Anything, even if it was rejected.

Ms. Goldberg, confirming the reputation of the dismal science in six sad words, wrote back: "I’m afraid nothing comes to mind."