Fieldwork Fail Shows How Science Is Sometimes a Hilarious Trainwreck

By Emily Lipstein on at

After long years of research, your efforts have paid off: the archaeological site you’re digging in has turned up a stash of rare, striking bones, no doubt the beginning of a groundbreaking discovery. Only then, you find the KFC wrapper, revealing that this “ancient burial ground” is just the leftovers of someone’s lunch.

In the summer of 2015, scientists on Twitter started describing research mishaps like this—which happen more often than you’d think—as “fieldwork fails.” The #fieldworkfail hashtag went viral, and two years later, it’s getting an encore in a new book by French illustrator Jim Jourdane  (available for pre-order later this year), thanks to his blog and a successful Kickstarter campaign.

As Jourdane reveals in Fieldwork Fail, things often don’t go as planned in science. The book contains fieldwork mishaps from the fun and harmless, like realising the “bat” you thought you were tracking was actually a crosswalk signal, to the more dangerous, like peeing on a jaguar’s marked tree and getting stalked through the jungle for three weeks. It’s a great starting point for scientists to communicate some of the less-sexy aspects of their work.

Jim Jourdane

“I thought it would be interesting to … develop more,” Jourdane told Gizmodo. “Not only the stories, the fieldwork fails. But also the [lives] of the scientists, because when I talked to [them] I realised that there’s a lot of problems of communication with the general public about how they work, what they do.”

Jourdane, who is not a scientist, eliminated complicated jargon and used illustrations to visualise the anecdotes to make Fieldwork Fail accessible to all readers: “Eleven-year-old children, my grandmother, friends, scientists.” He made an effort to include researchers from all over the world to provide a broader, more global perspective on research, and translated the book into both Spanish and French.

Jim Jourdane

Jourdane interviewed the twenty-five scientists (whose tweets he included in the book) to get a broader perspective on the nature of their fieldwork, its implications, and impacts. In the book, conservation biologist Aditya Gangadharan talks about mistaking elephants for boulders while doing work in India, but is also vocal about how colonialism plays into conservation efforts. Christopher Schmitt, a bio-anthropologist and primatologist, segued his experience getting dengue fever while doing research on white-faced capuchin monkeys into talking about how the pet trade threatens some primate species with extinction.

Jim Jourdane, with text from Aditya Gangadharan

Perhaps the biggest success of Fieldwork Fail comes from its use of illustration to humanise science, and to distance it from the stereotypes of the “out of touch” scientist in a white coat, tucked away in a windowless lab. While Jourdane’s readers might not all be scientists—and have never accidentally glued themselves to a crocodile—the book provides a broad audience with a fuller perspective of what fieldwork really is, which could inspire readers to get excited about scientific research, mishaps and all.


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