Academic Pranks, Hoaxes, and Tomfoolery

Photo courtesy of Catunes on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

It may be difficult to publish a paper right on April 1st, but academia isn’t completely safe from April Fools’. Check out some of these famous examples of scholarly pranks:

F.D.C. Willard, author of two papers in low-temperature physics, was actually the pen name of Chester, the cat of co-author Jack H. Hetherington. Hetherington had written the article “Two-, Three-, and Four-Atom Exchange Effects in bcc ³He” for Physical Review Letters referring to himself as the plural ‘we’; upon being informed that Physical Review Letters only accepts the use of ‘we’ for papers with multiple authors, Hetherington simply added his cat as a co-author. Willard later published “L’hélium 3 solide. Un antiferromagnétique nucléaire” in La Recherche as sole author.

While Willard’s articles were legitimate despite the unusual author, multiple authors have perpetrated hoaxes on the academic community with the aim of criticizing publication and editorial practices in many different fields. Perhaps the most well-known is physicist Alan Sokal, who submitted a nonsense, jargon-filled article to non-peer-reviewed cultural studies journal Social Text, arguing that humanities scholar’s commentaries on the sciences were not scientifically rigorous. The sciences, however, are not safe from criticism either: a nonsense computer science paper generated by the program SCIgen was accepted at the World Multiconference on Systemics, Cybernetics, and Informatics and the authors were invited to speak.

The Annals of Improbable Research doesn’t cover hoaxes, but actual research that delves into the absurd. The aim of the Improbable Research, according to their website, is to collect research that “makes people laugh and then think.”

  • Visit the Improbable Research website to download a free issue of the journal and keep track of improbable research published in other journals (check if GSU subscribes to them!).
  • Read a recent article linked on the blog: “Arbiters of Truth at Play: Media April Fools’ Day Hoaxes“. Are April Fools’ Day hoaxes from legitimate news sources harmful?
  • Remember to keep a sense of humor about research–even the most ridiculous-sounding research can tell us something new about the world, and even the most serious research can benefit from a sense of humor about itself.

Happy April Fools’ Day, and consider finishing off your day with a new open course from MIT.

About Jaclyn K Werner

Jackie Werner is the GSU Chemistry, Mathematics & Statistics, and Physics & Astronomy librarian.
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