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Tonight I was scrolling through my RSS aggregator (which includes subscriptions for several journals I follow) and this abstract caught my attention. The article's title, as well as the name of the software it describes, includes a subtle reference to this popular internet meme. This gave me a good laugh, and an excuse to watch that ridiculously silly video again.

But on a more serious note, this is not the first time I have seen the use of subtle (or not-so-subtle) humor in the title of a scientific journal article, conference abstract, or poster presentation. Sometimes the humor is even injected into the body of the publication itself. But in general, we as scientists are expected to write in such a way that our findings are easily communicated and easily reproducible. The focus is on clarity, objectivity, and reproducibility.

There are of course no formal rules about the use of humor in scientific literature, but are there any de facto rules? Do these de facto rules depend on the field (computer science vs genetics) or the publisher (Oxford Univ. Press vs BioMed Central) or the journal's impact factor (Nature vs Frontiers in Genetics)? Does humor even have a place in scientific literature, or would we be better off without it?

  • See this related question on the theoretical computer science SE site. (Warning: lots of inside baseball.) – JeffE Mar 1 '12 at 3:55
  • The [PhD challenge][1] would be an example of not-so-subtle humor in scientific literature, I guess. [1]: phdchallenge.org – akid Mar 5 '12 at 12:53
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I see humorous titles in scientific articles now and again, like the "Wizard of Odds" joke in a recent commentary in Epidemiology. One should however be somewhat cautious. The general use of "marketing gimmicks" like questions in the title have been suggested to increase downloads but not actual citations - which flawed or not flawed form the basis for how both the paper and you as the author are evaluated.

Consider this finding:

The results of the current study indicate that in two prestigious scientific journals in psychology the use of exceptionally amusing titles (2 standard deviations above the average rated amusement) was associated with a substantiate ‘penalty’ of around 33% of the total number of citations. The present results were found in both of the examined journals and cannot be attributed to potential moderating effects of the title length and pleasantness, the number of authors, the year of publica- tion, and the article type (regular article vs comment).

While that might not be perfectly generalizable, I think it's pretty easy to say that being overly clever is hazardous.

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8

The NCBI ROFL blog is a good source of intentional and unintentional humour in the scientific literature.

In general I think we can get a little too po-faced about the "importance" of the scientific literature, and a little humour now and then (used wisely) can help to make a point. It is an easy thing to misjudge, however, and I think it is true that no humour at all is vastly preferable to bad humour.

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The brief answer is that, yes, humor has its place, but

  1. it should never be used at the expense of the integrity of the results;
  2. even when used, it is often only used sparsely; and
  3. the author typically is somewhat known in the field. (You rarely find a very young professor publishing something like that.)
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4

I would be careful with humour in publications mostly because the reviewers might not appreciate it, especially if it's something they might not understand because their native language is not English. Having a paper rejected because a reviewer didn't appreciate your attempt at humour is not something I'd be very keen on.

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