From proposals to snarks: the messages that scientists sneak into their papers

Researchers have hidden secret notes in their manuscripts for decades, but there are risks.
A magnifying glass on book

Hiding personal messages in the small print of academic papers isn’t a good idea.Credit: Alex Timoshkin/EyeEm/Getty

To mark St Valentine’s Day, Nature this week published a collection of stories of romance kindled and sealed by science. One describes a science writer who was asked to investigate unusual crystals in a particle collider, and on her arrival there, was surprised by her partner, who proposed; another concerns a palaeontologist who stashed an engagement ring in a stream bed.

Then there are the declarations and proposals buried in the acknowledgements of a scientific paper. What could be more romantic than an analysis of the cooling power of a fridge? Answer: an analysis of the cooling power of a fridge that ends with the words: Will you marry me?

That’s how Rui Long, a PhD student in engineering at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China, proposed to his partner Panpan Mao, in a paper published online last month in Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications.

He is not the first: a similar line in the acknowledgements of a 2015 Current Biology paper describing a new dinosaur sent viral the proposal of Caleb Brown to his girlfriend and fellow museum scientist Lorna O’Brien. The proposal method has its risks: it relies, of course, on the person being proposed to actually reading the acknowledgements. (In at least one case, an anxious proposer had to ask his partner to try again.) There are other more serious concerns: that the person proposed to will feel coerced. Many critics argue against public proposals — from those in YouTube videos to hijacked sporting events — for this reason.

Proposals are certainly not the only messages that scientists have smuggled into their academic acknowledgements. Funding agencies have been ‘thanked’ for steering research by refusing previous applications, and scolded for not paying their bills. Sports fans have slipped in references to favourite teams, and imaginary people have been credited to pay homage to popular culture, such as The Simpsons TV show and, in one case, the thrash-metal band Slayer.

Even the text of the paper is not immune. Peer reviewers, it seems, must be on the lookout for striking similarities to lines from Star Wars — and, infamously, everybody missed that an interloper had drawn a stick man fishing in a water tank in a schematic diagram included in a 1955 paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Authorship of papers is also ripe for mischief making. Physical Review Letters published a paper in 1973 written by the US physicist and mathematician Jack Hetherington and F. D. C. Willard. Willard — who subsequently published as a sole author — was Hetherington’s cat. And in 2001, materials scientist Andre Geim co-authored a Physica B: Condensed Matter paper on Earth’s rotation with “H. A. M. S. ter Tisha”. (It’s not clear how the hamster contributed.) Various groups of authors have claimed in their papers that the order in which their names appear was determined by non-standard methods, including in one case, a 25-game croquet series.

Tinkering with the names on academic publications should not be undertaken lightly. South Korea announced earlier this month that it was widening an investigation into the possibility that some scientists added the names of their children and other relatives. In certain cases, the practice is thought to be intended to give the children an edge when applying to university, a highly competitive process in which, it seems, a publication record might help.

How common are personal messages in papers? A straw poll of Nature’s manuscript editors failed to produce any confirmed examples in our pages. But at least one has slipped through. In an online discussion of the practice from 2011, microbiologist Rosie Redfield writes: “I once thanked Howard Ochman for ‘pharmacological support’ on a theory paper (in Nature!). He had given me a pound of excellent coffee beans.” We checked, and it’s true. But no more, please. As our guidelines to authors state: focus on the science, and avoid the risks and distractions of personal messages that might misfire.

Nature 554, 276 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-01876-8
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