Merry Christmas and an Academic New Year

This post originally appeared on my Guardian Higher Education blog.

Merry Christmas (REF is over). Hopefully you can breathe a sigh of relief and ease into a nice relaxing Christmas break. Or, if like me you have a long list of papers to finish, I hope this post will at least bring you a little bit of holiday cheer.

One of my favourite ways to get into the holiday mood is to bake something Christmassy; there is nothing quite like the smell of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves filling your house. As well as reminding you of Christmases past, it turns out that these spices produce chemicals similar to amphetamines when baked, potentially acting as a natural mood enhancer.

Once you are high on Lebkuchen, you are ready to put your feet up and sink into some Christmas-themed research. Highlights include Will climate change kill Santa Claus?, on the potential decline of Santa-themed tourism, and a rigorous analysis of 344 letters to Santa. Though kids ask for an average of seven gifts per letter, the jury is still out on whether or not gift giving is ultimately welfare enhancing.

While kids may love his gift-giving powers, this study shows that they are pretty ambivalent about actually meeting Santa in person. The facial expressions of children queuing to see Santa in a shopping centre were compared with a scale used to measure pain in medical settings. Of 300 children assessed, 247 were deemed “indifferent” to the prospect of meeting the mythical bearded man, while 47 were “hesitant”. By contrast, most of the accompanying adults wore “exhilarated” expressions, perhaps as a result of overenthusiastic attempts to get the kids to give a damn.

The author of the study suggests that Santa “may not be an important hero figure and might even be considered a stranger” to the children. However a survey conducted in Denmark counters that people perceive Santa as being as trustworthy as a doctor, and more friendly, despite his nonexistence.

The Canadian Medical Association, concerned about occupational health risks, has published a doctor’s referral for Mr Claus. Potential ailments include obesity and hypertension, respiratory problems caused by repeated exposure to ash in chimneys, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (he’s always making lists and checking them twice).

Rudolph may also have some health problems. I always assumed that his red nose was the result of a severe cold, however one academic argues that Rudolph is in fact suffering from a parasitic infection of his respiratory system.

Speaking of Rudolph, the chemists may be interested to learn of two chemicals, rudolphomycin and rednose. The paper detailing these chemicals was submitted to the journal on December 21st (1978). While the journal allowed the silly name to stand, the chemist was rebuked by his boss for not taking his job seriously enough.

An excellent contribution to the Christmas literature came this year from Laura Birg and Anna Goeddeke. Their comprehensive review of Christmas economics highlights some interesting trends: the US stock market surges in the pre-holiday period, though this effect is decreasing over time (in New Zealand the effect is increasing); alcohol consumption and related accidents and deaths spike during the holidays, though suicides decrease; and the number of people dying of cardiovascular diseases increases markedly, though the exact reasons for this are unclear.

Women do most of the Christmas shopping, men are happier, and more kids are conceived – no causal link has been established between these three observations.

The week on Twitter

The academic Twittersphere has been particularly full of Christmas cheer this week. The hashtag #XmasSongPapers is being used to reframe famous Christmas song titles as academic papers:

Meanwhile, a handful of creative academics have been converting their left over draft manuscripts into office decorations:

Finally, while I was doing my PhD, we created this beautiful Christmas tree from old boxes left over from an IT delivery:

Box Tree

Have a go at some #XmasSongPapers or #DraftFlakes, and let me know what your#AcademicXmas plans are – @AcademiaObscura.

Proof that academia is teeming with humour, wit… and general oddness

This post originally appeared on my Guardian Higher Education blog.

Though we academics are often maligned for our perceived stuffiness, academia is in fact teeming with humour, wit, and general oddness. This blog, which I have every intention of publishing every two weeks (lest it perish), is my attempt to collate some of this oddity for your Friday procrastination and amusement.

This first post hails the progenitor of much academic obscurity, the Ig Nobel prizes. The Igs, which recognise research that “first makes people laugh then makes them think”, recently celebrated its 24th first annual award ceremony.

The ceremony has been described as “a collection of, like, actual Nobel Prize winners giving away prizes to real scientists for doing f’d-up things… it’s awesome”. Indeed, one scientist, the flamboyant Andre Geim, has won both an Ig and a real Nobel; the former for levitating a frog using really strong magnets and the latter for the development of graphene. (Geim also co-authored a paper with his pet hamster, Tisha.)

My favourites from this year include:

  • dogs defecating research

    An image taken from the published study. Photograph: Hart et al.

    A study finding that dogs align their body axis with Earth’s north-south geomagnetic field lines while they are “doing their business”. This necessitated the rigorous scientific observation of no fewer than 1,893 defecations.

  • A study measuring the frictional forces at play when a person steps on a banana skin.
  • A study entitled, ‘Seeing Jesus in Toast’. It’s about seeing Jesus in toast.
  • A medical report documenting the stemming of severe nosebleeds by stuffing strips of cured pork up the nostrils (you literally couldn’t make this stuff up).
  • A study in which researchers play dress up to see how reindeer react to humans disguised as polar bears. The authors shirked the usual convention of publishing in the most appropriate journal available by choosing not to publish in the ultra-specific Rangifer: Research, Management and Husbandry of Reindeer and Other Northern Ungulates.

For the sacrilegious academics who slipped away from academia, there are still opportunities to win: the economics prize went to the Italian government’s National Institute of Statistics. They admittedly don’t sound like such a fun bunch, but when the meddling powers at the EU mandated that each member increase the size of its economy, the Institute took the lead by counting a range of “innovative” revenues in its accounts, including those from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling, and other unlawful financial transactions.

The Igs are almost as popular as the real Nobels these days. Marc Abrahams, the organiser, reckons that many want to follow in Geim’s footsteps, conducting studies with the sole aim of netting an Ig. About 10-20% of the 9,000 nominations received each year are self-nominations from self-appointed academic-comedians (academedians?!).

The Igs spawned an accompanying journal, the Annals of Improbable Research, in turn no doubt inspiring the Journal of Universal Rejection, which rejects every submission received, and the recently launched Proceedings of the Natural Institute of Science, whose acronym (PNIS) speaks for itself.

And so it is that this humble blog reaches you, merely the latest in a long line of academics trying to prove their unstuffiness. We hope you enjoy it!

The best thing I’ve seen this week
The hashtag #AcademicInsults was trending this week, proving that academics can be as cruel as they can be funny. The most withering and sharp-tongued offerings concern poorly written papers (“Some journal with a low impact factor will be happy to take that”), viva pep talk (“Don’t worry, you can still get a job as a sales rep”), and your general lack of worth in the field to which you have dedicated your life (“Oh sorry, I’m not aware of your work”).

Overheard on Twitter

5 Super Specific Academic Journals

Academia is known for its ever-increasing specificity and specialisation, and, in the internet era, quantity. There are approximately 47,845 academic periodicals currently in circulation, churning out research papers on a mind-bogglingly wide range of subjects.1 Inevitably there are some rather odd publications out there. Here we present our top five.

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1.  American Journal of Potato Research (AJPR)

TAJPRhere are about 196 countries in the world, depending on how you count them. The best estimate we have of the number of known plant species is around 400,000,2 though we probably really don’t have the foggiest. 20,000 of these are edible,3 yet somehow we humans have managed to whittle this down to just 20 species that provide 90% of our food.4 Apply this tendency to academic publishing and you get the American Journal of Potato Research.

Highlights:

Sad Potato

  • In addition to the usual full-length articles, AJPR welcomes “short communications concisely describing poignant and timely research”. Poignant?! As in “evoking a keen sense of sadness or regret“?! How exactly one writes about potatoes with a keen sense of sadness or regret is beyond me.
  • Discovering that you too could become an Honorary Life Member of the Potato Association of America. Something to aim for.
  • Feeling genuinely sorry for the lack of love the Potato Journal is getting on social media: 85 likes on Facebook and 50 followers on Twitter. Can we help them out a bit?

2. Rangifer: Research, Management and Husbandry of Reindeer and Other Northern Ungulates

Proudly billing itself as “the world’s only scientific journal dealing exclusively with biology and management of arctic and northern ungulates, reindeer and caribou in particular” one has to wonder if we haven’t stumbled upon a topic so specific that one volume would suffice. Yet Rangifer is still going strong after 34 volumes.

Highlights:

  • Description of an “enigmatic group of arctic island caribou” (PDF).
  • Reindeer. Lots and lots of Reindeer.

3. Journal of Near-Death Studies (JNDS)

jndsExploring near-death experiences, empirical effects and theoretical implications, out-of-body experiences, deathbed visions, after-death communication and the implications for an understanding of human consciousness. Despite the niche subject matter, the JNDS says it is “committed to an unbiased exploration of these issues and specifically welcome a variety of theoretical perspective and interpretations that are grounded in empirical observation or research”.

Highlights:

  • Realising that all of that sounds quite a lot more interesting than your own research.

4. Answers Research Journal (ARJ)

In contrast to JNDS’ commitment to allowing challenges to its niche, the ARJ is perhaps the only journal in the world that openly declares that it will only publish articles that accord with a pre-established hypothesis. The Journal, titled as if to deliberately obfuscate the content, publishes:

research that demonstrates the validity of the young-earth model, the global Flood, the non-evolutionary origin of “created kinds,” and other evidences that are consistent with the biblical account of origins

Still, at least they are telling you up front what you need to say to get published.

Highlights:

  • The series of articles attempting to estimate the number of various species types aboard Noah’s Ark: Crocodiles & Turtles, Snakes, Amphibians, Frogs, Mammals, Dinosaurs5… We’re going to need a bigger boat.
  • Lots of sentences consisting of 50% science followed by 50% amusing nonsense. E.g., on the genus Acrochordus: “because of its fully aquatic existence and capability of osmoregulating in hypotonic and hypertonic aquatic environments, it is potentially capable of surviving Flood conditions and are not included on the Ark“.
  • Extensive author guidance on how to reference the Bible. E.g.: “Lowercase for divine dwelling places, including heaven, hell, and paradise.”6 

5. Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine (JNRBM)

Lovingly called “the world’s most boring journal” by the Washington Post, the JNRBM actually serves a very important purpose:

You might imagine that JNRBM is a place where losers gather to celebrate their failures, kind of like Best Buy or Division III football. But JNRBM meets two important needs in science reporting: the need to combat the positive spin known as publication bias and the need to make other scientists feel better about themselves.

Realising the growing tendency for scientists to publish only positive results, JNRBM instead encourages the “publication and discussion of unexpected, controversial, provocative and/or negative results”. The Journal is also pushing the envelope in the other ways, recently implementing an open peer review policy, whereby reviewers sign their reviews and their reports, and authors’ responses, are made available. This Journal may just be a taste of things to come.

Highlights:

  • Lots of failed hypotheses, obviously.
  • ‘The female menstrual cycle does not influence testosterone concentrations in male partners’ (PDF).
  • ‘False rumours of disease outbreaks caused by infectious myonecrosis virus (IMNV) in the whiteleg shrimp in Asia’ (PDF).

Anybody managing to publish in all 5 of these journals will be handsomely rewarded.

 

  1. Calculation from http://pages.cmns.sfu.ca/heather-morrison/appendix-c-how-many-active-scholarly-peer-reviewed-journals/
  2. According to Botanic Gardens Conservation: http://www.bgci.org/ourwork/1521/
  3. According to Plants for a Future: http://www.pfaf.org/user/default.aspx
  4. Ibid.
  5. just kidding, the dinosaurs didn’t make it to the boat on time.
  6. The full guide is available here: https://legacy-cdn-assets.answersingenesis.org/assets/pdf/arj/instructions-to-authors.pdf