Something Something Science: “I’m a Doctor, not a Comedian”

Science, Fun and Pop Culture References

“Stop using pop culture references as the first half of the title of your journal article.” This a recent tweet by Michael McCullough, a California based psychologist and author. The response from the twitter scientific community has been overwhelmingly… sarcastic.

Many scientists have replied with their own papers that bear such titles: “#SoMe the Money! Value, Strategy, and Implementation of Social Media Engagement for Infectious Diseases Trainees, Clinicians, and Divisions” and “Sharks on a plane: Large shark fin seizure shines light on shark exploitation.” Others have simply replied with mock titles for articles on the subject: “Stop Making Sense: A Multi-pronged Analysis Of The Futility of Giving Academic Advice Over Twitter”, “I’m just here for the replies: An observational study of the Twitter roast of killjoy professors.”, or the truly perfect “Never Gonna Give You Up: The Use of Pop Culture References in Journal Article Titles.”

Whilst I’m sure we can all agree that these are ‘sick burns’, it does lead to the question of why people feel so strongly about this. The original tweet might seem like a fairly innocuous opinion that has been met with an avalanche of (mostly humourous and well intentioned) responses. I believe that this tweet cuts to the core of a source of tension in the scientific community, and a key question as to how science should be communicated.

But first, let’s talk about science writing, or more specifically journal articles. The journal articles that McCullough refers to are the main way that scientists communicate results, and are read by other scientists when building their own work. They are also, often, quite dry reading. They involve a dispassionate summary of current knowledge; a detailed explanation of how an experiment or study was conducted; a description of the statistics involved; a detailed breakdown of the outcome of those statistics; followed by a robust discussion of the implications of the findings on the scientific world. Can all of these aspects be exciting to the right people? Of course! But there is a reason why you won’t find these articles in the magazine stand at the supermarket, or on the homepage of Buzzfeed. Science writing is often dense and tedious. Poor writing also compounds these problems. Many scientists habitually rely on words like “heretofore’, “moreover”, “correspondingly” and “notwithstanding”, that are used to create overly-verbose, overly-long word vectors that utilise advanced nomenclature and terminology to create a false sense of intelligence and academic rigour, either deliberately or simply incidentally (in other words, scientists use a lot of big words to make themselves sound smart). I am certainly guilty of this too.

The tediousness of scientific papers has created a whole ecosystem of science communicators, journalists, TED talks, podcasts, and blog posts (hello there), which exist to communicate science to a general audience (hopefully without boring them to tears!!). All of this is great, and science communication is an incredibly valuable field! But what about the scientists? What about the people who have to read dozens of journal articles a week, as well as writing their own. Should they not be allowed to have a little fun?

Well, some of us do, by adding little pop culture references to our article titles, and little jokes to our writing. However, others argue that this is unprofessional. These science purists (AKA, the fun-police) argue that the purpose of scientific articles is PURELY to communicate the science, and not to entertain the audience reading it. Many point to legitimate concerns such as excluding those who are not “in on the joke”, an overuse of low hanging fruit (in 2005 there were over 4000 uses of “To be or not to be”) or that there is evidence that articles with pop-culture titles are actually cited less by other scientists (though this could be because the “fun-police scientists” don’t want to engage with these works)! However, I think to dismiss the idea entirely, misses the point.

Something that is fun to read is going to be easier to read. A little joke title can go a long way to getting your audience engaged with the work. A well chosen reference can also be an excellent way to communicate complex information. For example, an article entitled: “The hidden diversity of dimorphic fungal pathogens” sort of tells you what the article is about…however, if you change the title to “Fantastic yeasts and where to find them: the hidden diversity of dimorphic fungal pathogens” the audience immediately knows what the paper is about! We’re going on a fantastic yeast hunt, and honestly, who wouldn’t want to!?

But, the other thing to consider is that scientists are human. We like fun, often silly things. We want our jobs to have moments of levity, especially during tasks that are often bland. Pop culture is also a huge part of who many of us are, and speaks to why we became scientists in the first place. I would be a liar of I said that part of the reason I want to complete my PhD is so I can say “I’m a doctor, not a…” at every possible opportunity. And I think many of my peers are inspired by scientists in pop-culture (both fictional and not). To ask for the wholesale removal of these references from people’s work is doing a disservice to the fun-loving, science-loving people who write them.

But of course: that’s just like, my opinion man!

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