The Good, the Weird and the Hilarious Scientific Papers
On a day-to-day basis, postgraduate researchers are perusing hundreds of papers, preprints and journals. We set Google scholar alerts and experience an exhilarating cocktail of adrenaline and dopamine, when the daily digest of new articles arrives in our inbox. Did someone else get there first and publish the answer to the research question you have been working on? The fear ebbs away slowly, as you realize that yes, the paper is related to your field of research, but still not quite the same thing.
Next, you might file the newly acquired PDFs away, using your reference manager of choice. From 6+ years of using Mendeley, I have accumulated a mighty collection of knowledge in form of over a thousand academic papers. Among my collection of ‘very serious scientific papers’ lives an odd folder called ‘funny or interesting’. Sometimes, I will come across an article that makes me laugh or is interesting, but doesn’t directly relate to anything I am working on. I started this folder in my undergraduate degree, when a lecturer asked us provocatively: “So, have you heard of the dead salmon story?”.
A dead salmon in the MRI scanner
Neuroscientists and psychologists, bear with me for a moment while I let the rest of the postgraduate research community in on this strike of genius . Bennett and colleagues were scanning several inanimate objects in preparation of a new experiment, to check if their fMRI scanner worked as expected. Among these many inanimate objects, one was an Atlantic Salmon.
The authors ran their experimental task, set up for the following ‘real’ study involving human participants. Thus, the dead fish was confronted with images of people engaging in social interactions. When the researchers later looked at the acquired data, they found something peculiar: a small cluster of significant brain activation. They wryly point out, that due to the “relatively small size of the salmon brain further discrimination between brain regions could not be completed”.
So, how is this possible? In their aptly titled poster “Neural correlates of interspecies perspective taking in the post-mortem Atlantic Salmon: An argument for multiple comparisons correction”, they describe a problem that is very common in fMRI research: neuroscientists conduct statistical tests on the many tiny parcels that the brain is partitioned in, so that a small proportion of random noise will turn out as ‘significant’ brain activation. To avoid this ‘dead salmon effect’, researchers have to control for the number of comparisons they make.
The ingenuity of this paper was rewarded with an Ig Nobel prize in 2012 (a parody prize referencing its more famous sibling and the word ‘ignobel’). The award is designed to highlight research, that “first makes you laugh, and then makes you think”. Only one laureate of the Ig Nobel went on to receive an actual Nobel prize so far: Sir Andre Geim. In one instance, he was able to levitate a frog using magnets, and in another, he was the first person to isolate graphene. Go figure, which prize he received for which achievement.
Tweet, and you shall receive
Curious, I turned to Twitter and asked if other users had favorite ‘unusual’ studies. As it turns out, they had many. From marriage proposals hidden in acknowledgment sections (“Romance is not dead, it’s just hidden behind a paywall”, Dr. Jess Wade), to thanking erupting volcanoes for forcing scientists to remain in Iceland and finish their paper, to a blank page entitled “The unsuccessful self-treatment of a case of “writer's block”. You can have a look at the thread yourself, as not all of the papers mentioned made it into this post.
A fantastic article that I came across through these Twitter recommendations was published in the British Medical Journal’s (BMJ) Christmas edition. In this randomized-controlled trial (participants are randomly assigned to treatment and control conditions) the authors set out to investigate how effective a parachute is when jumping out of an aircraft, compared to jumping with an empty backpack. The researchers describe the process of their participant recruitment as follows:
“Prospective participants were approached and screened by study investigators on commercial or private aircraft. […] Typically, passengers seated close to the study investigator (typically not known acquaintances) would be approached mid-flight, between the time of initial seating and time of exiting the aircraft. […] All participants were asked whether they would be willing to be randomized to jump from the aircraft at its current altitude and velocity.”
Parachutes and presumptions
Unsurprisingly, the researchers didn’t manage to recruit anyone, so they had to compromise with conducting their trial comparing the effectiveness of parachutes when people jumped from small, stationary planes, from roughly a meter above the ground. Of course, the parachutes were not more effective than the empty backpacks in preventing injury and death. The point of this study is, as the authors eloquently point out, to showcase the fact that many randomized controlled trials are very biased in their recruitment, which reduces the applicability of trial results to practice. They finally conclude that “we can confidently recommend that individuals jumping from [a] small stationary aircraft on the ground do not require parachutes, individual judgment should be exercised when applying these findings at higher altitudes.”
There are many more examples of funny and ingenious papers like these ones out there, but to list them all would go beyond the scope of this post. While many of these articles make you laugh, such as a recent paper on marine ecosystems, which is entirely designed in the style of a graphic novel, they also make you think about important issues in science and the way science is done. In the end, we hopefully learn something, in addition to being entertained, for example by the description of scientific misconduct through Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell.
 When the paper was first submitted to the 2009 Human Brain Mapping meeting, it received such harsh scores (consistently 0), that it attracted the attention of Karl Friston, who was on the review board at the time. The famous neuroscientist realized the potential of the paper and the authors were finally invited to present at the conference.
Header image: Photo by Emiliano Vittoriosi on Unsplash.
Bennett, C. M., Miller, M. B., & Wolford, G. L. (2009). Neural correlates of interspecies perspective taking in the post-mortem Atlantic Salmon: an argument for multiple comparisons correction. Neuroimage, 47 (Suppl 1), S125.
Thébaud, O., Link, J. S., Kohler, B., Kraan, M., López, R., Poos, J. J., ... & Handling editor: Howard Browman. (2017). Managing marine socio-ecological systems: picturing the future. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 74 (7), 1965-1980.
Yeh, R. W., Valsdottir, L. R., Yeh, M. W., Shen, C., Kramer, D. B., Strom, J. B., ... & Nallamothu, B. K. (2018). Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma when jumping from aircraft: randomized controlled trial. bmj, 363, k5094.