Monday, September 29, 2014

It's No Joke: Humor Rarely Welcome in Research Write-Ups

The Chronicle of Higher Education
September 29th, 2014

Stephen Heard once wrote a paper about how pollen spreads among the flowers of a certain endangered plant. In it he speculated that the wind might play a role by shaking loose the pollen. To support his point, he cited "Hall et al., 1957"—a reference to the songwriters of the Jerry Lee Lewis hit "Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On." But a reviewer nixed Heard’s little joke. "Although I appreciated the levity of the reference," he wrote, "I think it is not appropriate for a scientific publication."
So is levity ever appropriate in a scientific publication? Mr. Heard, a professor of biology at the University of New Brunswick, thinks so, and in an essay titled "On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed?"—published in the always hilarious Ideas in Ecology and Evolution—he bemoans the buttoned-up super-seriousness of most published research, noting that amusing moments in the literature are "unusual enough that finding one is like sighting a glow-throated hummingbird or a Salt Creek tiger beetle: beautiful, but rare, tiny, and glimpsed in passing."

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