Monday, July 13, 2015

Turns out nobody is perfect! Peer reviewed humor in geoscience journals.

There are bajillions of scientific papers published every year. Some are great, most are OK, and a handful are awful. That is just my opinion of course, but it simply a statement of fact that very few papers are ever published that make you chuckle. And I mean chuckle in a good way, not in a “I can’t believe they published this crap” way. Not that geologists aren’t funny people, but the form makes it tough. Think about it, you have an awesome joke that would actually fit into a paper you are writing. That is rare enough! Then you must convince your co-authors to include it (at least one of whom is likely cheerless, stodgy, or already annoyed by the writing process), then convince some reviewers (who will likely only like the joke if they love the rest of the paper), and finally an editor (who’s responsible for dozens of mediocre manuscripts and just wants to get back to his or her own research without being the person who made the journal appear unserious). And all of that comes after you have convinced yourself that it won’t harm your career in some way, seeing as how publishing papers is the one skillset that academia cares the most about, and it therefore seems a little to much of a gamble, especially if you’ve ever had a joke fall pancake-flat in front of a live audience. Live jokes are at least finished with quickly, published jokes, including the terrible ones, will live on forever.
For that and many other reasons it is rare to find funny things, even in conference abstracts. Rare, but awesome. I love these papers and abstracts, and I’ve started collecting them. I thought I might make this a semi-regular feature on the blog, and I’ll start with my favorite. Suggestions would be greatly appreciated!
So here is my favorite of all time.
Rosholt, J. N., Emiliani, C., Geiss, J., Koczy, F. F., & Wangersky, P. J. (1963). Absolute Dating of Deep-Sea Cores by the Pa 231/Th 230 Method” and Accumulation Rates: A Reply. The Journal of Geology71(6), 810–810.
I was pointed to this one by a Ph.D. student a few years ago when I was a post-doc, and it remains my all-time favorite. The story is that the authors had written a paper, and another group of scientists had pointed out a small error in their data handling. The error didn’t alter the conclusions significantly, but was still a goof. The comment corrected the oversight, and then the authors of the original paper had a chance to respond, as is the custom with discussions and replies. Their response is perfect, “Oh, well, nobody is perfect.” In addition to being a great response, this now gives me an actual reference to cite if I ever want to state that no one is perfect. Like this:
It has been well established that nobody is perfect (Rosholt et al., 1963).
or
Ideally samples would have been collected from the entirety of the range, however nobody is perfect (Rosholt et al., 1963).
They even acknowledge the sources of financial support used to fund the reply! And the USGS director authorized it! Incidentally, that was Thomas Nolan, and the official USGS write up of his tenure as director fails to mention this contribution. He presided over the discovery that nobody is perfect for god’s sake!
This was the 1960’s, a time when science budgets and research groups were still expanding in the post-war boom. I wonder if you could get away with this nowadays? Perhaps this speaks to a different time when funding wasn’t as cut-throat? When maybe people (which for 60’s science I of course mean dominantly white American men) weren’t so worried about their H-factorsimpact factors, and appearing squeaky-clean perfect?
I don’t know any of the authors, and I understand little of the science, but I appreciate the contribution. apparentdip.wordpress.com

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