No Laughing Matter: Wittiness Might Actually Hurt A Scientific Paper's Reputation


Laughter might be the best medicine, but humor’s not necessarily rewarded in the realm of scientific publishing.

If you're ever seized with the urge to browse through the archives of research repositories such as PubMed or JSTOR, you’ll come across a lot of word salad that’s not exactly enticing to the lay reader (e.g. “Epigenetic inactivation of notch-hes pathway in human B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia”; “Overexpression of integrin a2 promotes osteogenic differentiation of hBMSCs from senile osteoporosis through the ERK pathway.”) The rest of the text will tend to be at about the same level of readability.

Even the less jargony offerings aren’t exactly thrilling. In 2012, the paper in the New England Journal of Medicine most-cited by other researchers was “Strategies for Multivessel Revascularization in Patients with Diabetes.”

This may not be an accident. While wit can be a powerful asset to a novelist or journalist (and, obviously, a comedian), scientists might actually have an incentive to not be funny in their professional work.

In 2008, Itay Sagi and Eldad Yechiam, researchers from the Israel Institute of Technology, examined the effect of adding amusing titles to research papers. The pair scrutinized articles published between 1985 and 1994 in two high-ranking behavioral science journals, Psychological Review and Psychological Bulletin. Titles were scored on their humorousness and pleasantness by eight graduate students, and Sagi and Yechiam calculated the papers’ monthly citation averages.

Their results, published in the Journal of Information Science, showed a clear pattern: humor doesn’t help your research get noticed. In fact, an exceptionally amusing title – rated 2 standard deviations above the average level of amusement – meant that a paper was likely to have 33 percent fewer citations.

“The use of humor may decrease the tendency to read an article and treat its contents seriously,” the authors wrote.

On the other hand, there’s a limit to how funny scientists can be when composing the titles of papers. Some of the most amusing titles found by Sagi and Yechiam were “Beware of a half-tailed test” and “The unicorn, the normal curve, and other improbable creatures,” which gives you an idea of how dire the humor landscape in professional science really is. Maybe people are more likely to be turned off by a bad joke of a title than a boring one.

The truly funny stuff in scientific research – at least to this layperson – is the stuff that plays it straight. Take Skull Base, which isn't a prog-metal band, but a journal focused on disease of the base of the skull (now folded into the Journal of Neurological Surgery) or the Journal of Controlled Release (which publishes papers on how drugs get delivered to various parts of the body).

Then there are the Ig Nobel prizes for “improbable research,” where the humor’s not so much in the delivery but in the subject itself. The 2012 honorees included research published in Psychological Science revealing that if you lean to the left, the Eiffel Tower looks smaller (as documented in a paper entitled, straight-forwardly, “Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller: Posture-Modulated Estimation”) and the observation of brain activity in a dead fish (“Neural Correlates of Interspecies Perspective Taking in the Post-Mortem Atlantic Salmon: An Argument For Multiple Comparisons Correction,” published in what is perhaps one of the most on-purposefully pleasantly titled scientific publications: The Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results.)

Join the Discussion