Academics with BEER!

I love beer. So does Elena Milani (@biomug). When the Italian Neuroscientist and SciComm expert realised that no hashtag yet existed for academic beer-lovers, she set about creating one. This is her call to arms! 

tapsThe Internet and social media are plenty of cute fluffy cats, because kittens sell, especially among academics. Everybody knows that!

But what about beer? I love craft beer (and kittens, of course), and in Twitter I’ve found many hashtags on beers such as #beer #craftbeer #beerbods #beertography #breweries #beerselfie and so on.

However, there isn’t a hashtag for academics who love beer, as me, and I was curious if beer could help me to engage others scholars in Twitter. So, I started “an experiment” launching #academicswithbeer with the help of Cristina Rigutto.

A lot of people replied, retweeted and favorited this tweet! And you are invited to join the conversation too!

You can tweet:

  • Quotes
  • Selfies
  • Sketches
  • Sketchnotes or mind maps
  • Other pics or texts

But you must include beer in your pic/text/tweet!

Now, join the #academicswithbeer stream 😉

This post originally appeared at Elena’s blog, SciCommLab.

Is This the Worst Academic Journal Ever?

Update: Since I first drafted this post, ABRJ has revamped it’s website. Not to worry, it’s still hilarious.

Spoiler alert: yes, probably.

We are all aware of the growth in open access ‘journals’ of dubious quality, but my attention was recently drawn to one of the worst examples I have ever seen. It is so bad, and unintentionally hilarious, that I couldn’t resist sharing it.

The American Based Research Journal (ABRJ) is, and I quote, an “Open-Access–Monthly–Online–Double Blind Peer Reviewed Journal”. This American based journal lists a UK contact address, which google earth shows to be a rather nondescript suburban lane on the outskirts of Manchester.

This is far from the first warning sign. The mere scope of the journal is baffling: “All areas of Accounting and Finance, Business, Management, HRM, Marketing Computer Science, Engineering, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences and Arts (Including Fine Arts) are covered”.

In case that isn’t broad enough, the page provides a long list of specific topics, ranging from “Fundamentals of Income Tax” to “Fashion Designers” and “Fashion Trends”.⁠ The latter two are inexplicably linked to some dodgy looking .biz fashion website which, at the time of writing, hosts a fascinating article entitled “What To Wear With Peasant Top This Summer”.


The logo the Journal chose to convey this broad scope? A DNA double helix.

As for its peer review policy, the website explains:

We adopt double blind peer review policy in which both authors and reviewers are kept anonymous to each other so as to maintain the high technical and quality standards as required by the researchers’ community these days.

Researchers these days are so picky, with their newfangled double blind studies and whatnot.

The ‘journal’ regularly spams scholars asking them to submit, but at the very least the emails are (unintentionally) funny. Jeffrey Beall has archived it online for posterity. Showing that the sender never learnt how to do a mail merge, the email starts:

Dear Dear Author, We are really impressed after reading your research work: ‘Research Article’

It continues:

Our journal American Based Researche [sic] Journal… with good reputation and published by USA PhD Doctors Collaboration and referred from them, which focuses on business, management,… and relevant subjects.

Online publication costs only $150, and the reader is exhorted to submit  “articles for publish from students, Research scholars and professors for Calls for Papers-Sep-25-2014 publications”.

Here comes my favorite bit. The email is signed:

Best wishes
Dr. Merry Jeans
New York, USA

No matter how many times I’ve read it, I still chuckle a little at Merry Jeans, possibly the funniest fake name ever concocted. Or is it? The editorial board of ABRJ features other gems, including “Dr. belly Joseph”, “Dr. Jazzy Rolph”, and “Prof. William” (no surname), while reviewers include a “Dr. Phineas drown”. At some point I stopped even bothering to google these names to confirm my strong suspicion that none of them really exist.

This journal is so obviously bullshit, but I had to know who was behind it. I dug around a bit and found that ABRJ’s web address is registered to one Abid Ali from ‘Zoom SEO Services’, based in Lahore, Pakistan. A couple of searches later and I found myself on his personal blog site, which consists of one rather telling page.

Ali is/was in fact a student of the Virtual University of Pakistan (incidentally a real bricks and mortar university, not actually a virtual one). He gloats that his blog had previously been shut down because he had been posting completed university assignments. To his apparent joy and amusement, he reregistered the name when it became available again, only to make this one announcement.

It perhaps comes as no surprise that the worst of all the awful fake open access journals that I’ve seen to date comes from the bedroom of some cheating student in Pakistan – half the battle in the internet age is that pretty much anyone with a computer can throw together a sham journal and, apparently, make some cash.

As Derek Lowe puts it: “It’s a long way down, that’s for sure, and the bottom is nowhere to be seen.”⁠

Fun and Laughter in the Lab

coverThis week we have a guest post from Dr. Gail M. Seigel. I recently bought Gail’s book, ‘Academania: My Life in the Trenches of Biomedical Research’, which recounts some of her experiences from her 25+ year research career. You can buy it here. Gail’s book happens to have an entire chapter about having fun in the lab, so I asked her to do a guest post and start a conversation about having fun in the lab! Follow Gail on Twitter @eyedoc333.

I am thrilled to be an invited guest blogger this week for Academia Obscura. As a matter of professional introduction, I am a retinal cell biologist at SUNY Buffalo with 25+ years experience in biomedical research. I am a firm believer in working hard, but having as much fun as possible while doing so. With all of the bad news these days of funding cuts, low wages and poor job security, we all need to lighten up sometimes and have a good laugh.


Buff the Gerbil

When Academia Obscura asked for photos of “Academics with Cats” on Twitter, I was the one who posted a photo of “Academics with Gerbils” just to be contrary. That’s how I roll.

Here is an excerpt from the book, from the chapter entitled “Lab Hijinks”:

Sometimes we scientists need a break from the serious work of the lab, especially during the challenges of graduate school. The long hours and delayed gratification of long-term experiments can inspire us to do silly things to break up the tedium and I am no exception.

It was April Fools’ Day and there were two large goldfish swimming in our lab’s 10-liter buffer dialysis tank. My thesis advisor had once joked that although the dialysis tank was empty at the time, one day there would be fish swimming in it. I made sure that his prediction would come true. Not to worry, though. Once the prank was over, I brought the goldfish home as pets and named them Src and Myc, two oncogenes that I was studying at the time. Src and Myc went on to live happy goldfish lives and the dialysis tank was used for experiments once again.

Many people wonder what it’s like to work in a lab on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes, it can be very serious. At other times, it can resemble a comedy sketch. Imagine bright yellow masking tape with the word “radioactive” in red lettering. It is normally used as a warning label for experiments that involve radiation. But if the tape is cut in half, the word “radio” becomes evident, ready to stick on the portable stereo system used for background music in the lab.

I think being able to laugh at ourselves can help get us through some of the darkest times. My happiest memories of graduate school are not of the exams, but of the lightheartedness and human-ness of the people around me. I may have forgotten fermentation pathways, but I’ll always remember the bacterial plate streaked in the pattern of a good-natured farewell: “GO AWAY, LARRY” and presented to a fellow student upon graduation. I’ve also forgotten the Krebs cycle but I still remember a lab’s proud display of plasticware that had been accidentally melted into contorted modern sculptures by the intense heat of the autoclave cycle.

The funniest things can happen without even a conscious effort on anyone’s part. I’m still amused by the thought of proof-reading a student’s thesis before the age of auto-correct and finding the phrase “picnic acid” instead of “picric acid”. Another time, while scheduling a meeting with a visiting scientist named Dr. Fu, I had to spell the scientist’s name on the phone. I became red-faced and apologetic as I told the caller, “F-U”. It doesn’t take much to find humor in the nooks and crannies of every day life, academic or otherwise.

snowmanI will leave you with a visual prank. This one is a snowman made from lab ice, a conical tube and aluminum foil. When a co-worker dumped ice into the lab sink and declared, “Someone should make a snowman out of this!” How could I not?

You must have your own stories of academic tomfoolery, pranks and silliness: we would love to read all about them! Tweet using the hashtag #LabLaughs and share your stories. And remember: Have fun, but be safe!

If you want more about lab hijinks, as well as stories of plagiarism, sabotage and academic mayhem, check out Gail’s book, ‘Academania: My Life in the Trenches of Biomedical Research‘.

Why does it always rain on me? Academics forecast their day

People have, on occasion, asked how a particular hashtag came about. I have often wondered the same of others’ hashtag creations (#PhDAsExistentialCrucible anyone?) but usually struggle to remember what the thinking was behind my own. The latest, #AcademicForecast, is easily explained.

I started out today by trying to tackle some ‘minor revisions’ on a paper. About an hour into this process, I started to ponder, as I’m sure many of you have, why supposedly minor revisions take so long? Admittedly some of the reviewer’s comments were indeed minor and swiftly dealt with (I had failed to capitalize the word ‘Tuna’, perish the thought). Others, seemingly innocuous, are probably going to take a few hours to tick off the list.

I didn’t much fancy doing the big changes at that moment so I headed to Twitter to procrastinate. I’ve been seeing an unusually high level of pedantry on Twitter lately, and today was no different. Slightly deflated by the fact that my options for the day seemed to be pedantry from Reviewer B (I assume it was Reviewer B, it usually is) or pedantry on twitter, I wrote the following:

I quite liked the idea of an academic day being summed up by a slightly sarcastic weather forecast, and figured that others may wish to join me:


As usual, the academic twittersphere did not disappoint! A hundred or so tweets came in; here are a few of my favorites:


Even grammar got involved:

And, as usual, a good time was had by all 🙂

Academic Easter Eggs

You’d expect the likes of Google to be hiding Easter Eggs in their pages, originating as they do in old school video games (just search ‘do a barrel roll’), but you might not think the practice would catch on in the stuffy ranks of academia. Though not exactly widespread, academics have been known to amuse themselves by discreetly burying little jokes in their journal papers.

The most obvious are the cringeworthy paper titles we’re all familiar with: plays on words, remixed film titles, awful Dad jokes. There is even a study examining whether such titles affect citation numbers. I particularly approve of the five Swedish scientists that have been sneaking Bob Dylan lyrics into paper titles for the past 15 years, having made a bet to see who can reference Bobby D the most before retirement. This is how a paper on intestinal gasses got the title, ‘Nitric oxide and inflammation: The answer is blowing in the wind’.

By far the most fertile ground for academic Easter Eggs is on the first page of journal articles, hidden in plain sight in author lists and acknowledgements. ‘Muammar “Dirty Old Man” Gaddafi’ has contributed to a paper through his “inspirational level of lived coherence”, while Italian pornstar Rocco Siffredi provides “constant support” for research on cystic fibrosis (he’s all heart). Some researchers get divine inspiration from famed cargo cult deity John Frum, while others credit the heavy metal band Slayer for their academic output.

gadaffi gaddafi 2

Sometimes certain language skills are required to decipher the jokes. Italian speakers noticing Stronzo Bestiale on a paper would likely raise an eyebrow (it means “total asshole”), while speakers of Catalan would realize that Visca el Barça is a football chant, not an author. When one journal decided to provide for transliteration of author names, they probably didn’t expect that 韦小宝 would be writing for them: he is a well-known character in Chinese stories, being a prodigal son of a prostitute and a demi-Emperor with 8 wives.

Polly Higgins and her co-author/dog

Polly Matzinger and her co-author/dog

Then there’s cats. If #AcademicsWithCats has taught us anything, it is that academics, like everyone else on the internet, have a bewildering love of cats. It is no surprise then to find that one academic cat, F.D.C. Willard, is the sole author of a paper on high temperature physics. Written in French, no less. Elsewhere in the animal kingdom, Nobel Prize winner Andre Geim co-authored a paper with his hamster, and Galadriel Mirkwood, immunobiology expert, is actually a dog.

Perhaps it should be graduate students that carry the torch in this emerging field, given that they are not (yet) concerned with tenure and the like. The sadly defunct website PhD Challenge aimed to capitalize on this by encouraging students to slip a silly phrase into a published paper. The insertion of “I smoke crackrocks” into a paper whose methodology involved receiving phone calls from all-comers in the wee small hours of the morning seems a bit like cheating, but I like the idea nonetheless. One step down from grad students and the possibilities are endless – one of my favorites is an essay, which deftly weaves the infamous lyrics of Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up into its first page (an internet phenomenon known as ‘Rickrolling’, for the uninitiated).

A plague on your house!

A plague on your house!

I personally love this small injection of humor into the dusty barrenness of academic literature, but you’d be well advised to proceed with caution. Polly Matzinger’s tenure committee saw the funny side of including a dog as an author, noting that the dog had likely contributed more than many other so-called co-authors. But naming cancer-causing genes after Sonic the Hedgehog, publicly calling out a reviewer for their “useless and very mean comments”, or wishing a plague on the house of a research body that refused to fund your research may not be such a good idea.

If you are going to slip in an Easter Egg or two, it is probably best to hide it well or make sure it is understood by only a select few (experts on Chinese literature or fans of heavy metal, for example). Happy Easter!

Seen an academic Easter Egg? Tweet me @AcademiaObscura.

Cars on Campus Rooftops and R2D2 Observatories: 6 awesome college pranks

1) Spruced up statues

Many university campuses have statues of mascots or key figures from the institution’s history – and dressing them up has become a longstanding tradition the world over. One dramatic failed attempt to dress up a campus statue is particularly worth highlighting. In 1958, a group of students at the University of California, Los Angeles, thought it would be a good idea to coat the Tommy Trojan statue on rival University of Southern California campus in manure. Incredibly, the students rented a helicopter to dump their cargo, but the manure got sucked up into the helicopter’s rotor blades, spraying the students with a taste of their own medicine. Poor Tommy has been the subject of so many pranks (including having his sword repositioned in a rather uncomfortable manner) that the school has installed a live webcam to deter further assaults on his integrity.

r2d2_science_building2) Remodeled campus buildings

Not content with desecrating statues, a few enterprising students at Carleton College remodelled a whole building, transforming the university’s observatory into a huge replica of R2D2. The swivelling of the telescope makes it the perfect medium, and the likeness even comes complete with all the robotic beeps of the original. Check out the YouTube video.

3) Cars hoisted onto university buildings

All the way back in 1958, Peter Davey of Cambridge University started the trend of sticking a car on the roof of a campus building. The Austin Seven he chose made the 70ft climb to the top of the Senate House after months of planning, reams of calculations, and help from students who volunteered to surreptitiously erect scaffolding. It took a week to get the car down afterwards. In 1994 some MIT students followed suit, this time hoisting a (fake) campus security car atop Building 10 and issuing it with a parking ticket.

4) Angered football fans

Source: Wikipedia

This one really only works in the US, where college football games attract thousands of spectators. The 1961 Rosebowl was watched by 100,000 and millions more who tuned in on TV. All were shocked when fans held up cards which, taken together, read “CALTECH”. Tiny Caltech is not known for its sporting prowess, and were not on the pitch. Apparently, some crafty Caltech students had managed to fool a cheerleader that they were journalists, break into the cheerleaders’ hotel rooms, and switch the cards and instructions.

No doubt inspired by this stunt, in 2004 two Yale seniors and 20 of their friends dressed as the fictional “Harvard Pep Squad”, walked into Harvard’s football stadium and convinced almost 2,000 unsuspecting fans to unwittingly spell out the words “WE SUCK”.

5) Fake students

One of the earliest university pranksters was Georgia tech student William Edgar Smith. He received an extra enrolment form when he signed up for his studies in 1927 and filled one out for the imaginary George P Burdell. Smith completed coursework for his fictitious friend, earning him a very real degree. Burdell has since become the stuff of university legend, earning a number of additional degrees and being admitted as a member to many clubs. Barrack Obama even got in on the joke, saying that George was meant to introduce him but that he was nowhere to be found.

Fake students need not even be human, and matriculated animals have frequently been used to call out equally fraudulent institutions. There is a “List of Animals with Fraudulent Diplomas” maintained on Wikipedia.

6) Silly school traditions

In the town of Göttingen in Germany, recently minted doctoral graduates rush off to kiss a statue of Lizzy, aka “Goose Girl” (Gänseliesel) at a fountain in front of the mediaeval town hall. In Wisconsin, students have been placing plastic pink flamingos on the main lawn at graduation since 1978.

Does your university have a history of foolish pranks? Have you hung a giant bra from a balcony or stolen a priceless George III cannon and welded a brass rat to it? Share your story @AcademiaObscura.

This post originally appeared on the Guardian Higher Education Network.

11 things I learned about academia by analysing 14 million RateMyProfessor reviews 

I love data visualisation, and every now and then a gem comes along that blows my mind. Last week I came across Ben Schmidt’s tool for analysing gendered language in teaching evaluations. The tool allows you to plug in any word (or two-word phrase) and see how much that phrase is used in 14 million reviews. You can see usage is split across gender and discipline. While intended to show gender differences, it turns out the tool is excellent for revealing all sorts of weird and wonderful trends.

1. There are predictable and problematic gender differences.
The words ‘smart’ and ‘intellect’ are more likely to be used to review male professors, and ‘genius’ is more likely to describe a male professor in every single discipline for. By contrast, words such as ‘awful’, ‘terrible’, and ‘incompetent’ are used much more in relation to females. More on this here.


2. There are also some less predictable gender differences
Female professors are more likely to be called ‘mad’ and ‘crazy’, while the males are more likely to be ‘strange’. Males are simultaneously more likely to be reviewed as ‘funny’ and ‘boring’.


3. All professors can be ‘dumb’ and ‘stupid’
These two words remain satisfyingly gender neutral (with the exception of in engineering).

4. Men are idiots
By contrast, the word ‘idiot’ seems to be reserved for males.

5. Hair grows in unusual places
A search for ‘hairy’ ranks physics top of the class, due to an unexplained preponderance of hairy females. The hairiest men are overwhelmingly in education and philosophy.


6. Some disciplines have poor dental hygiene
A search for ‘bad teeth’ reveals that male anthropologists and female historians and apparently have problems going to the dentist.

bad teeth

7. Anthropology professors are irritating
As are those in Fine Arts and, ironically, communication.


8. Criminal Justice professors are awesome
As are psychology professors.

9. Music teachers have no dress sense
I personally love elbow patches and tweed, but if you subscribe to the view that they are outmoded attire for the modern academic, you best steer clear of music.

elbow patches

10. You aren’t allowed to claim that your prof is an alcoholic
Yet I couldn’t find any other prohibited phrases. Believe me, I tried all the taboos I could think of.


11. Weird stuff goes on in classrooms.
Even the most unlikely words will have been used in a review somewhere. ‘Tea bag’, ‘sand castle’, and ‘baby food’ all appear, for some reason. Find some solace in the fact that neither ‘naked twister’ or ‘strip poker’ appear in any.


An Academic Guide to Love & Romance – Happy Valentine’s Day!

This post originally appeared on the Guardian Higher Education Network.

Whether you find yourself alone this Valentine’s Day, or you just need some top tips on pleasing your partner, our guide to love is sure to help. So put down your pen, back away from the UCLA Loneliness Scale, and read on.

If you do happen to find yourself alone, there are some reasons to be thankful. A study of 5,000 American adults found that you are still better off alone than in a dysfunctional relationship. Those in strained and unsupportive relationships were significantly more likely to develop depression compared with singletons.

Be careful though, unhealthy relationships are easy to fall into once you have been alone for a while, and research confirms that people settle for less due to a fear of being lonely. Best not to start dating during your PhD then, as this is likely the loneliest you will ever feel.

When the search for love commences, a tool created by Ben Schmidt could help. Intended to analyse gendered use of words in reviews on Rate My Professor, Schmidt’s nifty app can also narrow down your field of search for a potential mate. For example, a search for “cute” will show that the language department is the place to go, regardless of your sexual preference, while if it is intelligence you seek, philosophy and political science is where you shall find it. If you aren’t a fan of elbow patches and tweed, best steer clear of the music school.

Once you are partnered up, get into the sack as often as possible. More sex means fewer colds, not to mention that it is just plain good exercise​. There is a vast sexology literature that can be drawn on to improve your love life.

For those interested in the female orgasm, I give you the only piece of advice you will ever need, probably: ensure that the woman is wearing socks. In one study, only half of the women were able to reach orgasm, but this jumped to 80% upon the provision of socks. Warm and cosy feet calm the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, the brain regions responsible for anxiety and fear.

Even if you do find a mate and manage to live happily ever after in a blissful bubble of heteronormativity, love might still get you in the end. Being in a relationship is the most common cause of weight gain (according to research reported by the Daily Mail. I’ll say no more), and the medical literature is replete with cases of Broken Heart Syndrome. A 70 year-old woman with no prior heart problems collapsed in hospital after being informed that her husband of 45 years had died. While this is the stuff of urban legend, the jury is still out on the causal link.

The academic Twittersphere has been particularly amusing, if a little cynical, as Valentine’s Day approaches. The hashtag how to ruin a date with an academic in five words has academics pitching in with pithy comments on how not to wine and dine them:

Others have used the occasion to have a dig at the broken model of academic publishing:

#ScienceValentines is a little more warm and fuzzy, if asteroids and cold fusion are your cup of tea:

However, the romantic side of scientists apparently only extends so far, as Guardian blogger Dean Burnett demonstrates:

Best of luck in all your romantic and academic endeavours. Tweet me @AcademiaObscura and let us know how you fare. If this guide hasn’t helped you, then lock the doors, crack open a bottle of wine, and spend the evening writing that latest paper by candlelight. So romantic.

Academics with Cats Awards: the results are in!


Over 1000 people voted in the First Annual Academics with Cats Awards and the results are in!

We will be announcing the winners and runners up from Friday 16 January 2015 – one category will be announced daily, culminating in the grand finale, Cats and their Academics on Friday 23 January 2015.

In case you have already forgotten their furry little faces, you can see all the nominees here.

Winners will be announced as follows:

  • Friday 16 January: Cats with Computers
  • Saturday 17 January: Cats with Books
  • Sunday 18 January: Cats with Papers
  • Monday 19 January: Unhelpful Office Buddies
  • Tuesday 20 January: Special Mentions
  • Wednesday 21 January: Scholarly Cats
  • Thursday 22 January: Best Photography
  • Friday 23 January: Cats and Their Academics

The winners will be announced first via Twitter, then posted below.

female1-DrDeborahFishermale1-chrisbrooke female2-JesMHillmale2-jbardhan