Burns in children. Psychiatric illness. Head injuries. These are not funny subjects. But apparently almost anything can seem funny if you think about it long enough—especially if you’ve devoted years to studying the subject. When it’s time to publish their research, many scientists try to get clever with their article titles, presumably to make their work seem more fun and interesting. Fortunately (for us), the results of this creativity range from hackneyed to outright offensive.
We’ve been collecting scientific articles with bizarre titles for more than five years for our blog, Seriously, Science?. (It used to be known as NCBI ROFL, for National Center for Biotechnology Information: Rolling on the Floor Laughing. NCBI runs PubMed, a database of scientific journal articles. You can see why we changed the name.) Here we’ve compiled some of our favorites, classified into the three top categories—although some clearly belong in multiple groups.
Literary and Pop Culture Allusions
We’re not the first to notice that scientists enjoy using literary allusions in their paper titles. In fact, according to an analysis by Neville Goodman of allusions in scientific publication titles, scientists overuse some (obvious) literary allusions. Goodman found, based on an extensive search of the PubMed database, that “more than 1,400 Shakespearean allusions exist, a third of them to ‘What’s in a name’ and another third to Hamlet—mostly to ‘To be or not to be.’ ” There were also 381 allusions to Back to the Future, and many to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, where “all sorts of things have substituted for clothes, including isodose curves, bone densitometry, and the lateral ligaments of the rectum.” Unfortunately, says Goodman, “There are no ‘fat bottomed girls’ (Queen, 1978)” and “Obstetricians have so far ignored ‘Once more unto the breech.’ ”
On a related note, the annual (intentionally lighthearted) Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal was released this week, and it included an analysis by researchers in Sweden of Bob Dylan lyrics found in the biomedical literature. The study was inspired by the authors’ colleagues, who revealed in 2014 that they had been sneaking Dylan lyrics into their articles for years as part of a long-running bet. The list includes such title gems as “Like a Rolling Histone” and “Knockin’ on Pollen’s Door: Live Cell Imaging of Early Polarization Events in Germinating Arabidopsis Pollen.” Although the authors found few Dylan references prior to 1990, since then, the references have increased exponentially, with the two most cited songs being “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” (135 articles) and “Blowin’ in the Wind” (36 articles). Interestingly, the journal Nature had a particularly high number of articles (six total) that cited Dylan.
Here are a few of the more clever titles we’ve come across—some so ridiculous that we suspect the authors might have come up with the titles first and figured out the studies later.
Some titles take a joke a bit too far, especially for those of us viewing the field as an outsider. Maybe these scientists chose to use their paper’s title to lighten the mood on a heavy topic, but still … there’s dark humor, and then there’s just inappropriate.
And finally, there are the titles that seem so out there that their humor must have been unintentional … or at least we hope so?
Does having a clever title affect how well a paper is received? One study actually looked at whether articles with “amusing titles” get cited more often. Unfortunately, “while the pleasantness rating was weakly associated with the number of citations, articles with highly amusing titles received fewer citations.” But hey, at least they get cited on our blog! Do you have a favorite article title? Please share it in the comments below or send us a tip.