Scientific paper easter eggs

I’ve started a Tumblr to keep a running list of these as I add them. Please visit:

Scientific Easter Eggs Tumblr

If you have any contributions you’d like to add please post them below or Tweet at me at BioDataGanache.

[7/25/13: I updated to include several extra eggs pointed out by readers. Enjoy!]

Here’s a collection of ‘easter eggs’ in published scientific papers. An easter egg is a short inside joke or short program hidden in a program, application, or other form of media. As published works these aren’t really hidden and may not qualify as actual ‘easter eggs’- but they are funny or brutally honest and generally pretty incongruous with the idea of a stereotypically stuffy scientific manuscript.

        1. In this paper from 1973 a footnote states that the author order was determined by a 25 game croquet tournament. Twenty-five games is a heck of a LOT of croquet- hope it was worth it! Thanks to Iddo Friedberg for point this gem out to me originally.Screen Shot 2013-07-23 at 4.38.55 PM
        2. Acknowledgements in this paper may qualify as #overlyhonestmethods-

          "Order of authors was determined by proximity to tenure decision."

          “Order of authorship was determined by proximity to tenure decisions.”- Nice.

        3. Another great example of #overlyhonestmethods is reviewed by Bora Zivkovic on his Scientific American blog (which kindly links to this post BTW). How did the authors decide to publish their study on sleep 10 years after it was completed?

          We just thought of it after a drink in a local bar one evening at full moon, years after the study was completed.

        4. For this 1948 paper on the Big Bang, the senior author, Gamow, “humorously decided to add the name of his friend—the eminent physicist Hans Bethe—to this paper in order to create the whimsical author list of Alpher, Bethe, Gamow, a play on the Greek letters αβ, and γ (alpha, beta, gamma).”
        5. From Hardy Hulley (see comments below) a companion mathematics paper. Get this, the “Cox-Zucker” paper. The story can be found here. Apparently Steven Cox decided to write a paper with Dr. Zucker because it was just “waiting to be written”.
        6. In his 1973 paper on evolutionary theory the author thanks NSF for pointing him toward the field thusly:

          “I thank the National Science Foundation for regularly rejecting my (honest) grant applications for work on real organisms (cf. Szent-Gyorgyi, 1972), thus forcing me into theoretical work.”

          Yeah- thanks a LOT.

        7. I combed my own papers (where I was an author) for any hidden gems and the best/worst I could come up with was this one, in which my graduate advisor referred to a technician as “Katie Poptart Brown” – because she loved poptarts and would bring them in to work to eat and share on a regular basis. Incidentally, this is the second paper on which my then future wife and I appear as co-authors. Awwwww….
        8. This is an excellent example of an easter egg that is the paper itself. An in-depth (and meta) analysis of writer’s block published in 1974. Perhaps the best part is the comments from Reviewer A, included with the text.

          “I have studied this manuscript very carefully with lemon juice and X-rays and have not detected a single flaw in either design or writing style. … In comparison with other manuscripts I get from you containing all that complicated detail, this one was a pleasure to examine.”

        9. In a similar vein this physics paper on neutrinos titled, “Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement?” has an easter egg of an Abstract: “Probably not”
        10. Perhaps the ultimate easter egg in a scientific paper is finding out while you’re reviewing it (or reading it in a journal) that it’s been generated by a computer program such as SciGen or MathGen. I’m not sure when the realization takes place- but I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten a couple of these as submissions to conferences I’m chairing. Here’s how one math paper was accepted in a journal.
        11. New! Along the same lines, not really an example of intentionally including an easter egg in a publication, but rather of laying an egg. These authors did not check their supplemental data section carefully- or at all. This is really not a very funny example since it’s incriminating. But it’s an egg of sorts.

          Maybe Emma thought better of it since there's no made up data included here.

          Maybe Emma thought better of it since there’s no made up data included here.

        12. Ooh- this one just pointed out to me via comments to this post (see below) is great. Hidden fisherman in the schematic of a Rube Goldbergian contraption in this JACS paper

          stick figure fishing- only visible upon close examination of the original figure

        13. Another great contribution from Mike Taylor in the comments section: what would a scientific paper be without… Star Wars?

          From the introduction of my (not very good) 2005 paper Searching very large bodies of data using a transparent peer-to-peer proxy:

          “However, we should not be too proud of these individual technological wonders we’ve created: the ability to store terrabytes of information in any one repository is insignicant compared with the power of the Internet.”

          Compare with Darth Vader’s line in the original Star Wars:

          “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

        14. OK. Star Wars metaphors. And more Star Wars metaphors. First line of this review, “Textbooks represent the animal cell nucleus as a sort of cellular Jabba the Hutt, torpidly enthroned in the center of the cell.”
        15. Here’s another contribution via Twitter from Stephen Royle on his paper:
        16. The Jack of Science blog has posted a list of unintentionally inappropriate (and thus funny) scientific papers, which are certainly easter eggs- though a lot of the titles listed look like they’re just using field-specific jargon that could be interpreted as inappropriate, at least in an 8th grade way. [For example: A N Oraevsky, Spontaneous emission in a cavity, PHYS-USP, 37 (4), 393-405 (1994)]
        17. Here’s a citation that you wouldn’t want to use in polite company. I can’t remember exactly how I came across this one, but there was a good reason.

          I realize that people have odd names and all, but this is just embarrassing.

          I realize that people have odd names and all, but this is just embarrassing.

        18. I think this paper deserves mention- certainly not hidden, but the figures are very, ummmm, interesting (An in-depth analysis of a piece of shit: Distribution of Schistosoma mansoni and hookworm eggs in human stool”)
      1. Figure from http://www.plosntds.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pntd.0001969

I’m sure there are lots more examples out there- especially of funny things in Acknowledgement sections. But these are hard to dig up- if you come across any that could be added to my list please send them to me.

Will giving my paper a funny title increase it’s impact?

Interestingly, a non-funny scientific study of funny titles for scientific papers found that adding a funny title to your paper did not get it more recognition, at least as judged by number of citations. Notably, this paper was published before the advent of Twitter, which might really shift this equation a lot.

Here are some links to other related posts/lists:

A whole slew of funny scientific papers are listed here.

Of course the Annual Ignobel awards which celebrate papers published on odd, eccentric, and often very humorous subjects.

 

12 thoughts on “Scientific paper easter eggs

  1. There are two Grateful Dead references in the Data Conversions section of the biennial water reports “The World’s Water” published by Island Press. In 14 years (seven volumes) only a couple of people have noticed.

  2. Nice article! I’m not sure if you’re aware of the famous Cox-Zucker paper, which came about specifically as a response by the Princeton mathematics department to the Alfer-Bethe-Gamow paper. See the last paragraph in the following link: http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=2103. Ironically, the Cox-Zucker theorem turns out to be quite important.

    Also, while not precisely on topic, you may be amused by the following spoof journal, which was created by some academics to vent their frustrations at frequent rejections of their papers: http://www.universalrejection.org/

    Cheers, Hardy

  3. From the introduction of my (not very good) 2005 paper Searching very large bodies of data using a transparent peer-to-peer proxy:

    “However, we should not be too proud of these individual technological wonders we’ve created: the ability to store terrabytes of information in any one repository is insignicant compared with the power of the Internet.”

    Compare with Darth Vader’s line in the original Star Wars:

    “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

  4. The name “penguin diagrams” in high-energy physics came about because John Ellis lost a bet on a darts game to Melissa Franklin, and the loser had to squeeze the word “penguin” into their next paper.

  5. Hi, so I realize this post is a few months old, but I thought I would throw in this citation, on the topics of Star Wars and funny combinations of author names:

    Lord, R. G., De Vader, C. L., & Alliger, G. M. (1986). A meta-analysis of the relation between personality traits and leadership perceptions: An application of validity generalization
    procedures. Journal of Applied Psychology, 71(3), 402–410.

    It appears that Lord and De Vader were both authors of an earlier paper in 1984, as well.

    • Very cool. I’m keeping an updated running list on a Tumblr- linked at the top of the post. I’ll be sure to add this one. Thanks!

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