Leibovici’s paper was one of many of BMJ’s Christmas spoofs, appearing in the journal alongside other joke articles. But eight years later the paper was cited, unironically, in a review paper from a well-respected organization.
And here we have the first issue with spoof articles. Once they’re published, they’re filed into the archives along with everything else, and they’re called up in searches as if they’re regular studies. As more researchers move away from reading journals in their paper form—in which an editorial or an opening letter from the editor might remind a reader of the nature of the pieces—the context in which they initially live is stripped away. This isn’t a problem just in science. On Facebook, there is a new “Satire” tag affixed to articles from The Onion. But there is no “Holiday Joke” tag available in Google Scholar or PubMed. People aren’t reading things in their original homes anymore, whether those things are journal articles or lists of snakes in top hats. And plucked away from a homepage and placed into a stream, whether that’s a Facebook timeline or a PubMed search result, means stripping away context. For cat videos it doesn’t generally matter. For joke science it does.
And Leibovici’s piece isn’t the only one to be cited later on without a hint of irony. I searched for a few past Christmas issue studies to see where they’ve showed up since. One joke study from 2007 on the energy expenditure of adolescents playing video games has been cited about 400 times since then, according to a Google Scholar estimate. In 2010 a paper called “Effect on gastric function and symptoms of drinking wine, black tea, or schnapps with a Swiss cheese fondue: randomised controlled crossover trial” that examined just how good or bad it is to drink alcohol with fondue was cited later in studies about wine and heart health, children with ADHD, and gastrointestinal gallbladder emptying. A study called “sex, aggression, and humor: responses to unicycling” was cited in 2012 as evidence for “the evolution of humor from male aggression” and appears in a book called The Male Brain.
In fact, that unicycle study wasn’t just cited by other scientists, it was picked up by the BBC for a story with the headline “Humour ‘comes from testosterone.’” And here is a good example of another issue with these parody pieces. They often fail a basic premise of comedy: Punch up, not down. Using big science words to make fun of women and those who believe in prayer, even if it’s a parody, isn’t funny, it’s sexist and elitist. And formalizing those jokes in a scientific journal such that only those intimately familiar with the schedule that journal keeps (Christmas is for comedy papers, didn’t you know?) is a nice, formalized way to exclude people.
Souder points to a quote from Wayne Booth, author of A Rhetoric of Irony. Booth writes,
There is reason to believe that most of us think we are less vulnerable to mistakes with irony than we are. If we have enjoyed many ironies and observed less experienced readers making fools of themselves, we can hardly resist flattering ourselves for making our way pretty well.
And that is, in many ways, what’s going on here. Spoof journal articles are a way of solidifying who is “in” and who is “out.” Who gets the joke, and who doesn’t. At a time when scientists crave acceptance, when they bemoan the public’s lack of interest or support, perhaps it’s worth examining these jokes and wondering whether they might be part of the problem.