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.

Amazing Acknowledgements in Academic Papers

Almost every academic paper in any discipline will feature some variation on the following in a footnote:

I gratefully acknowledge [so and so] for their assistance/comments/support.

Yawn. But hang on, very occasionally these rarely-read footnotes contain something a little more interesting.

Perhaps the boldest of all comes from a group of French researchers, who “do not gratefully thank” a reviewer of their paper for his “useless and very mean comments”.

Don't sleep in late.

Don’t sleep in late.

Academics are not generally an aggressive bunch, and many of these hidden acknowledgments are a little more light-hearted. One Kara Miller at Oxford is called out for sleeping in late, selfishly leaving a couple of the authors bored. Biyu J., a Chinese researcher based in the US thanked:

the U.S. Immigration Service under the Bush administration, whose visa background security check forced her to spend two months (followi
ng an international conference) in a third country, free of routine obligations—it was during this time that the hypothesis presented herein was initially conjectured.


Tut tut Ministry of University and Research

Understandably, the subject of research funding often raises the ire of academics. An Italian researcher gave the Italian Ministry of University and Research its own ‘Unacknowledgements’ section to call them out on their failure to hand over the cash they promised. One British author took it even further, wishing the British Arts and Humanities Research Board “a plague on their house”.

Presumable Slayer is good writing music.

Presumably Slayer is good writing music.

Some researchers claim divine inspiration for their work, such as in this paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where the authors thank John Frum, while others get their inspiration from the heavy metal band Slayer and Italian pornstar R. Siffredi.

American evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen, who was “considered unconventional even by eccentrics”,1 thanked the National Science Foundation for “regularly rejecting my (honest) grant applications for work on real organisms, thus forcing me into theoretical work”.

unacknowledgements10 theoretical

Thanks guys!

Meanwhile a couple of Barcelona fans working in the US managed to sneak a football chant into their paper:

Are there any that I’ve missed?

  1. ‘Leigh Van Valen, evolutionary theorist and paleobiology pioneer, 1935-2010’