Science publishing: the humorous side

I spend a lot of my time teaching students to respect the scientific article.  We talk about why the peer reviewed article is the epitome of scholarly publishing, and why it deserves more esteem than other types of scientific publishing.

But as all practicing scientists know, the peer reviewed journal article is not without fault.  There are problems with the review process, complaints about the quantity of articles being published, and major concerns about rising costs.

So with all of these concerns in mind, lets laugh at the system.

First, let’s discuss the truly awful prose of many research articles.  Kaj Sand-Jensen discusses this topic in his excellent paper, “How to write consistently boring scientific literature.”  Among his recommendations:

  • Leave out illustrations, particularly good ones
  • Avoid originality and personality
  • Quote numerous papers for self evident statements

Sand-Jensens paper hits home for me because of an experience I had in graduate school.  I was reading an article about the chemical kinetics of the dissolution of kaolinite (a clay mineral).  Now, my chemical knowledge wasn’t too advanced, so I had struggled through many similar papers.  At one point I read and re-read a paragraph in the discussion section.  I reconfirmed that I understood what every word meant, and what every concept was.  Then it hit me:  this was just a very poorly written paragraph that completely failed to express the authors intent.  More importantly, my difficulty in understanding the article wasn’t my fault!  This was a very exciting realization.

Next, we can look at the horrors of trying to respond to criticism of a scientific article.  Rick Trebino’s excellent based-on-a-true-story satire of the comment/response system is worth a look, “How to Publish a Scientific Comment in 1 2 3 Easy Steps.”  This stands in contrast to some well known examples of how articles were commented on and retracted as a result of blog posts and the resulting blogosphere commentary.  (See this story about a recent article in the Journal of Organic Chemistry that was quickly debunked.)

Finally, lets poke fun at the citation behavior of scientists (the study of which has filled many PhD dissertations).  E. Robert Schulman demonstrates some of the strangeness of these decisions in his excellent piece in the Annals of Improbable Research, “How to Write a Scientific Paper.”  I teach students to track down citations in the papers that they find relevant to their project, which can occasionally result in wonderful resources.  Or just more filler.  As Schulman states,

The real purpose of introductions, of course, is to cite your own work (e.g. Schulman et al. 1993a), the work of your advisor (e.g. Bregman, Schulman, & Tomisaka 1995), the work of your spouse (e.g. Cox, Schulman, & Bregman 1993), the work of a friend from college (e.g. Taylor, Morris, & Schulman 1993), or even the work of someone you have never met, as long as your name happens to be on the paper (e.g. Richmond et al. 1994).

As an addendum, I certainly can’t leave out the horrible nature of many scientific lectures and presentations.  In order to help young scientists prepare truly horrible presentations, Alexander Kohn laid out some suggestions in his article “How to Make a Scientific Lecture Unbearable” also in the Annals of Improbably Research.  I have sat through many boring presentations, and I have stayed awake through most of them.  I did fall asleep once in a class where the professor was utilizing a slide strip (‘beep’ – advance to the next slide) that discussed dolomitization.  I have no regrets about that.  I whole heartedly endorse Kohn’s final suggestion, “It has been suggested that the listeners should organize themselves in a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Listeners and present the speakers with rules and regulations (and sanctions) before they start talking.”

Incidentally, if you are aware of addition scientific publishing satire, please let me know.  The system is way too serious to not make fun of it.


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