Joke Science Papers Get Less Funny Every Year

By Ryan F. Mandelbaum on at

Imagine reading a study from a prestigious science journal and finding out that the scientists performed and wrote the study as a joke. Sure, all of the data is true, but they littered the abstract and conclusion sections with irony. Other years you might have found it funny. But what if the joke was so arcane that only the scientist got it? And what if just minutes before you’d seen another fake news article denying climate change?

Every year around Christmastime, the British Medical Journal releases an issue allowing comically-minded scientists a chance to show off their ability to have a good time. But 2016 is not the time for one of the prestigious medical journals to produce a joke issue. With our fake news epidemic and science denial’s quick return to the zeitgeist, the practice needs some major rethinking.

The BMJ has been publishing joke issues for at least 30 years, according to a New York Times report, to add some fun to the otherwise stuffy world of science publishing. The reports are said to meet the same rigorous scientific standards as the rest of the journal’s articles but are often more lighthearted in content than the usual output, or produced with comedic intent and contain a dose of sarcasm. This year’s issue included a study on professors receiving academic spam emails, another on physical activity and Pokémon Go, and another meant to determine whether Santa will visit certain hospitals on Christmas.

We’ve embraced these articles and jokingly reported on their results in the past, But with science under attack, do we really want readers doubting scientists’ intentions because of silly papers? Smithsonian reports that one study analysed how intercessory prayer effected bloodstream infection outcomes but was later cited seriously in another paper on the topic. Sure, the data itself is real, but the fact that the study was performed as a joke still calls into question whether the evidence can be weighted equally with serious research. Meanwhile, an April Fool’s Day BMJ paper invented a disease, “motivational deficiency disorder,” and diagnosed one in five of Australians with it—and news media reported on the paper as fact.

The same Smithsonian article cites several experts who say readers (and I guess me, the media) shouldn’t misinterpret these studies or take them too seriously. But given the sheer number of readers, it’s inescapable that some will miss the joke. As a report in The Atlantic points out, the BMJ’s 2014 Christmas papers were viewed at least a million times. Aside from a “Christmas 20whatever” tag, there aren’t markers warning the reader that the studies might contain irony or satire. Even if the data is correct, public trust in scientists is a precious but evaporating asset. If the reader comes across a paper with research done for an intent other than searching for truth, he or she may lose trust. “Readers should be able to expect that the authors are aiming for truth, pointing their cannon at it,” wrote science writer Rose Eveleth in The Atlantic report. “And they should be able to expect that without constantly checking the date on a paper.”

Listen, I like the Christmas issue, and it produces quirky, interesting and often noteworthy science research, but I’m just saying that journals need to think closely about what a reader might do with their research or how a paper might impact overall reader trust. I think if the BMJ editors just held all of their sincere but quirky articles for a Christmastime oddities issue, that would be fine. But today, the process instead works as a competitive call for Christmas papers—encouraging scientists to do silly research specifically geared towards the joke issue. Lots of scientists tweet and blog—why not encourage using those spaces for scientists to show their creativity?

I reached out to the BMJ offices to ask what they thought about my view and suggestions, but all of the editors were out for Christmas holiday; I will update the post if I hear back. All I ask is that the BMJ and other science journals put extra effort in gaining and maintaining reader trust, and if that means spoiling the joke a little for the sake of transparency, so be it.