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.
Education and the Commercial Mindset
Samuel E. Abrams
“In Education and the Commercial Mindset, Abrams provides a detailed, informative and insightful account of the rise and fall of The Edison Project, as a case study of for-profit schools… Abrams demonstrates that for-profit schools have no incentives to consider long term educational or social goals. Obsessed with achievement metrics that might persuade consumers to purchase their product, they often exclude students with cognitive, emotional or behavioral problems. Or with failing grades… Running schools like businesses won’t solve the problem.”—Glenn C. Altschuler, The Huffington Post
“[An] outstanding book.”—Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post
Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology
Michelle D. Miller
“If you teach with technology in any form, at any level, I recommend you put this book at the top of your tottering pile of required reading on higher education. It’s an outstanding book that provides a road map for truly effective online teaching. What distinguishes [Miller’s] book from much of the research available on teaching with technology, and pushes it beyond arguments about improving access, is her emphasis on the ways in which online teaching tools can actually improve learning for all students—not just those who have no access to traditional face-to-face classrooms.”—James Lang, The Chronicle of Higher Education
Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel
Honorable Mention, 2015 PROSE Award, Education Theory category, Association of American Publishers • A Chronicle of Higher Education “Top 10 Books on Teaching” Selection, 2014
“If you want to read a lively and engaging book on the science of learning, this is a must… Make It Stick benefits greatly from its use of stories about people who have achieved mastery of complex knowledge and skills. Over the course of the book, the authors weave together stories from an array of learners—surgeons, pilots, gardeners, and school and university students—to illustrate their arguments about how successful learning takes place… This is a rich and resonant book and a pleasurable read that will leave you pondering the processes through which you, and your students, acquire new knowledge and skills.”—Hazel Christie, Times Higher Education
No Citizen Left Behind
2014 NASSP Book Award, North American Society for Social Philosophy • 2013 AESA Critics’ Choice Award, American Educational Studies Association • 2013 Michael Harrington Book Award, New Political Science Section of the American Political Science Association • Co-Winner, 2013 Exemplary Research in Social Studies Award, National Council for the Social Studies
“Levinson advocates restoring civic education, which gives young people insights into the workings of the American political system, to the educational curriculum on a national scale. She believes that ensuring all students receive the same civic education would strengthen our country and cause more citizens to take an active role in its government… The experiences and research Levinson shares have the potential to produce a national ‘aha’ moment.”—Terry Christner, Library Journal
What the Best College Students Do
“Some very good books are worth reading for a few splendid pages alone. Ken Bain’s What the Best College Students Do is one such book… [It] combines interviews with a review of academic research on university learning… The ‘best’ students are curious risk-takers who make connections across disciplines. By following those instincts—rather than simply chasing ‘success’—the best students achieved it. Bain’s new book is a wonderful exploration of excellence.”—David A. Kaplan, Fortune
A Choice Outstanding Academic Title, 2013
“Lockhart is famous in the math world for a 2002 essay about the state of mathematics teaching. He described it as akin to teaching music by forcing children to transcribe notation without ever touching an instrument or singing. Measurement is his attempt to change the equation: a conversational book about mathematics as an art that invites the reader to join in the fun. Sounding every bit the teacher whose love for his subject is infectious, he guides us through exercises in geometry and calculus—giving information and hints along the way while always encouraging us to ask, and answer, ‘Why?’ Lockhart does not try to make math seem easy; instead he wants his readers to understand that the difficulty brings rewards.”—Evelyn Lamb, Scientific American
Trusting What You’re Told: How Children Learn from Others
Paul L. Harris
Co-winner, 2014 Eleanor Maccoby Book Award, American Psychological Association (Division 7, Developmental Psychology) • 2013 Book Award, Cognitive Development Society
“Harris argues that the longstanding idea that kids should be self-learners who gain knowledge mainly from their own explorations and observations is flawed… Harris’ book explores lots of interesting ideas, including the impact of a mother’s level of education on a child’s inquisitiveness and why kids trust what they learn from their parents.”
—Julie Rasicot, Education Week
Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of High School and What Can Be Done About It
Russell W. Rumberger
“The most complete examination of the dropout issue I have ever seen… Rumberger examines every complex nuance, summarizes every important research paper and demolishes every Internet myth. His book is a masterpiece, something education wonks will keep close by… We can’t make any improvements, however, without knowing what hasn’t helped dropouts, and why. On those vital questions, this book will be the best resource for years to come.”
—Jay Mathews, The Washington Post
Teaching What You Don’t Know
Finalist, 2009 ForeWord Book of the Year Award, Education Category
“The hints and tips provided here will be valuable perhaps everywhere that there is a higher education system… Teaching What You Don’t Know will find a good audience as a rescue manual for the young, as it assuages the anxieties facing the postgraduate or the postdoctoral teacher. The book, which clearly draws on a wide range of teaching experience on the U.S. scene, offers good advice and outlines some useful strategies. Huston does, moreover, dig up issues that have become ever more pressing over the past few years.”—Leslie Gofton, Times Higher Education
Back to top