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I was reading this paper titled "Optimal Symmetric Rendezvous Search on Three Locations." While talking about the history of search problems, the author mentions the following anecdote in passing.

In 2007 a letter writer to the Guardian newspaper queried, “I lost my wife in the crowd at Glastonbury (a music festival). What is the best strategy for finding her?” A reader replied, “Start talking to an attractive woman. Your wife will reappear almost immediately.”

While I found it quite amusing to read this, I do not often come across papers with such witticisms. Is there an unwritten rule about the tone of sobriety that is considered appropriate in academic papers? Are jokes or anecdotes fine as long as they do not appear forced?

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    The most daring witticism I made was an Acknowledgements to the local grocery store for serving tasty muffins at half-price before closing in a workshop paper. My advisor recommended I take it out. However, in a conversation with a colleague, he said that it would have been a nice personal touch if you were able to learn a little more about scientists and see them more as humans if such benign comments were left in. – Irwin Apr 16 '13 at 16:01
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    Incidentally, the published version of the article has what appears to be a corrected version of this story: "In 2007 a correspondent to a newspaper wrote, 'If I lost my wife at, say, Glastonbury, would our chances of being reunited be better if I stayed in one spot, hoping she passes by, or if I wandered the site, hoping to bump into her?' (letter from Nick Crossland to the Guardian, June 19, 2007). A reader replied, 'All Nick Crossland would need to do is to start chatting up some other woman and his wife would immediately reappear. As if by magic' (Marjorie Moulding, June 26, 2007)" – Anonymous Mathematician Apr 16 '13 at 16:55
  • It's not a paper, but a glance into GKP's Concrete Mathematics convinces that some amount of (self-ironic) humour is definitely refreshing. – Raphael Apr 18 '13 at 8:51
  • Tell me, are the following titles sober? (1) Sturmian Jungle (or Garden?) (2) Excluding slightly more than a cycle The 1st one is a full combunatorics article containing many examples of various stuff with a common denominator, the 2nd one is a PhD thesis. – yo' Jan 12 '14 at 20:23
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    You might take a look at mathoverflow.net/questions/22299 for a collection of mathematical examples. – Andreas Blass May 27 '14 at 0:35

10 Answers 10

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Are jokes or anecdotes fine as long as they do not appear forced?

To me, there is a single measure for this: does a sentence X contribute to the paper, or not. If the answer is no, it shouldn't be there at all.

To apply the principle to the joke: if the joke illustrates a common problem which needs a solution, or illustrates a common (perhaps insufficient) solution to a well stated problem, then it certainly has a place in a research paper.

I understand scientific writing as a form of literature. I do not see any reason for literature (including scientific discourse) not to be entertaining as well, when appropriate. But everything has its time and place. However, it shouldn't be forced and has to fit the main contribution of the paper, hence the filter rule above.

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Quoting Terry Tao:

Overly philosophical, witty, obscure or otherwise “clever” comments should generally be avoided; they may not seem so clever to you ten years from now, and can sometimes irritate the very readers you want to communicate your result to.

However, you'll always be a little embarrassed looking back at yourself, so this is a pretty mild warning. I think there's nothing wrong with a little humor in papers.

That said, your example joke is definitely inappropriate to put in a formal paper because it's a joke that assumes the audience is all straight men. There may be a place for mildly sexist humor, but that place is not the workplace.

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    And if you don't think that joke assumes the audience is straight men, ask yourself "Would I tell this joke in front of an audience that was all women?" – Noah Snyder Apr 16 '13 at 14:22
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    In this vein, note that your paper will be read by people of all ages from many distinct cultures. What you find obviously funny may be completely opaque to someone from a different culture. – eykanal Apr 16 '13 at 15:41
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    Since the witty answer was given by a women (if I get the name right), I think it's save to assume sexism is not an issue here. It's more a play toward a common cliché. Cultural difference can be an issue, although I think the responsibility lies more with the reader (recognise and adapt to the author's culture) rather than the writer, otherwise we'll have only bland PC common denominator texts. – Raphael Apr 18 '13 at 8:47
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    @Raphael: women have sexist behavior too. Sexism is deeply rooted in many aspects of our societies, as is indeed shown by a lot of "common clichés". – Benoît Kloeckner Oct 17 '13 at 20:33
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To add to walkmanyi's good answer: To make jokes in a scientific article is "dangerous". It is similarly a bad idea to use "quotes"! In both cases the reader may interpret the written text in many different and unforeseen ways. It is particularly problematic since readers come from many different cultures and different ways of expressing themselves, for example, figuratively. Since clarity should be a key aspect of an article, it is best to stay clear of jokes and such, keeping the somber tone you refer to.

12

Answering from a Humanities, Arts and Social Science (HASS) focus, to contrast the STEM focus of previous responses:

Humour may play a vital role in both the dissemination of, and methodology of HASS discoveries. HASS fields tend to deal with multiple overlaid meanings, whether they reference social meanings or cultural meanings or pure ideas. Things that simultaneously mean many things tend to be funny.

Umberto Eco's sly fable, In the Name of the Rose is a useful case here. Eco is otherwise a scholar in a field where multiple meanings are vitally important. His novel is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, a piece of pulp fiction, while also being a sly attack on Stalinism and Academic life. Perhaps most importantly for this question, the issue of whether the innermost nature of reality (God, art / the least worst empirically tested description of external reality) can only be approached in a reverent and serious fashion, or whether the seriously funny kind of levity also gives us access to reality? Now In the Name of the Rose may not have been the best way to communicate new linguistics findings; but, a serious exegesis of In the Name of the Rose as a post-modern novel might reasonably try to recreate some of the levity of its evidentiary text.

I wouldn't suggest writing a paper full of the Big Bumper Book of Jokes, but if your evidence is naturally funny (anti-government jokes as representative of public sentiment); or, if there's an obvious irony in the case study that you can state clearly for the reader; or, if the proper presentation of your findings calls for wit; then, use it within the broader genre conventions of your discipline's writing.

8

Humor should be used sparingly, and when used, should not be obviously offensive. If you can imagine that someone could reasonably take offense to something, then it shouldn't be included in a formal research article. I would even avoid such a joke in a formal talk.

That said, humor does have its place in a scientific delivery. I often include a few wry remarks in my classroom lectures, but they are used sparingly, and only to lighten the mood. (I might make reference, for example, that you could do something, but only if you want your work to end up in the Journal of Irreproducible Results.)

But tasteless and overly lewd jokes should be saved for a stand-up comedy routine.

6

The truth is that it depends on your institution. My college required us to keep a somber tone, avoid dressing up how we presented things, etc. In other words, it had to sound incredibly boring. We were taught that academic papers were meant to deliver factual information. These other things didn't contribute to the facts or analysis, so they were unnecessary. I'm sure many other institutions might have variations of these rules. Break the rules, your paper doesn't make it. :(

Here's why I think that's ludicrous. ;) The purpose of any written work (excluding entertainment) is to convey a message. The writer must get the reader's attention, adequately get the message across, HOLD reader's attention while doing so, and (optionally) leave a lasting impression. Requirements 1, 3, and 4 are all in the presentation. So, it stands to reason that a witty, funny, or just somewhat unique presentation of content is entirely justified.

The irony of it is that many other classes taught us these principles of effective writing and captivating penmanship, then the academic papers we wrote were to avoid these things to be more successful. Makes a lot of sense, yeah?

Bonus thought. Academic papers also don't usually happen in a vacuum: many papers published in journals are competing with others. Different institutions want to make the best papers, find greatest discoveries, have highest acclaim, etc. It's not all that different from people publishing books. In light of this, I think academics have even more justification for going the extra mile to make their work stand out. Just a thought.

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    You're equating "somber" and "not dressing up the presentation" with "boring" and "ineffective". This is not the case. It is possible to make exciting research sound boring, and it's possible to make it sound exciting, all within the "only the facts please" setting of academic work. The reason why academic papers should ideally "stick to the facts" is because the idea is that a paper presents results and the reader is invited to verify the results and draw their own conclusions to compare with the authors' conclusions. – Suresh Apr 16 '13 at 21:27
  • Let's see if I can improve on my post. There are certainly papers with just research facts that come off as exciting. A paper might succeed just fine without extra presentation effort. Yet, decades of research into learning and psychology show a good presentation goes a long way. A paper can reach a wider audience or hit their intended audience harder. So, you could say I'm saying such styles are "more" effective rather than the only thing that can be effective. – Nick P Apr 17 '13 at 6:26
  • I can agree with this. But I also think that there's a fine line between effective presentation and marketing, and one has to be careful to separate opinions from fact. – Suresh Apr 17 '13 at 6:47
  • I totally agree with that. And walking that line can certainly take some discipline and careful thought. – Nick P Apr 17 '13 at 6:59
5

There was a physicist(?) in the Soviet Union who always sited a non-existent paper by Cheyne and Stokes ("irregular respiration brings relief"?) in all his publications (and also thanked them in acknowledgements). He was imprisoned in the GULAG in 1953 when it was announced (on March 5th) that Stalin had Cheyne–Stokes respiration. Another inmate, a physician, explained to him that this meant an inevitable death, and, thus, a hope for a change in their fortunes.

I am not sure if this qualifies as "humor", but I see no problem with it.

More to the point, you want your paper to be read to the end, and you want the readers to understand and appreciate the results. If a joke would illuminate your point, making it clear and unforgettable, go for it!

4

The driest book I ever read was the revised report on Algol 68. It was liberally salted with quotes. The best one was the "Merely corroborative detail" line from the Mikado, used to introduce pragmas (a kind of semantically meaningful comment). Quotes like this stopped one wanting to slit ones' wrist while reading the meat of the document.

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    N.B.: This "report" doubled as a VERY STRICT standard defn of ALGOL68. Full quote: {Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. Mikado, W.S. Gilbert.} c.f. jmvdveer.home.xs4all.nl/report.html#112 ... Another quote from the same report {Tao produced the one. The one produced the two. The two produced the three. And the three produced the ten thousand things. The ten thousand things carry the yin and embrace the yang, and through the blending of the material force they achieve harmony. Tao-te Ching, 42, Lao Tzu} – NevilleDNZ Oct 14 '13 at 9:43
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If it makes your point well, then a comment that is humorous can add to the paper. The cutoff for this is rather more permissive in a conference presentation, though sprinkling a few semi-relevant jokes into a presentation is best left to the keynotes.

The more eminent the author, the more they can get away with in terms of grabbing the reader's attention: How about the abstract to Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement?

0

Sometimes humor can help readers to remember the essence of an approach. The best example I can give in this regard is from Leo Breiman's original paper about bagging predictors* (paper available here). In the conclusion he summarizes the paper like this:

Bagging goes a ways toward making a silk purse out of a sow's ear, especially if the sow's ear is twitchy.

* Used to make a stronger model by combining a set of weak ones, which is particularly effective when there is high variability between the weak models.

On very rare occasions, authors go even further and write a paper about a humorous topic, such as WHEN ZOMBIES ATTACK!: MATHEMATICAL MODELLING OF AN OUTBREAK OF ZOMBIE INFECTION. Humor can be a good way of bringing abstract matter under the spotlight for laymen to appreciate.

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