Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Christmas 2019: Sweet Little Lies

Can academic satire exist in the age of “fake news?” Tracking the citation record of a “holiday review” paper

BMJ 2019; 367 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l6763 (Published 16 December 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;367:l6763
  1. Kenneth A Myers, clinician, scientist, pediatric neurologist and epileptologist, assistant professor123
  1. 1Department of Pediatrics, Montreal Children’s Hospital, McGill University Health Centre, Montreal, PQ, Canada
  2. 2Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, McGill University Health Centre, Montreal, PQ, Canada
  3. 3Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, Montreal, PQ, Canada
  1. kenneth.myers{at}mcgill.ca

As a medical student Kenneth A Myers published a satirical research paper for the Canadian Medical Association Journal. It’s been cited 11 times—and not for the reasons it was written

Nine years ago, I published an article in the holiday review issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) entitled “Cigarette smoking: an underused tool in high performance endurance training.”1 I was a medical student at the time, and the article was meant to illustrate the potential perils of non-systematic review articles. I attempted to take a light hearted approach, cherry picking articles and taking findings out of context, in order to make what I thought was a ridiculous argument. At the time I was mildly concerned that some people might take the article seriously; the abstract was clear, however, that this was not a sincere thesis, and clearly explained the underlying message of the paper. “SATIRE” was even written in large font at the top of the first page.

Initially, the paper was well received, and I was pleased to hear from several of my colleagues that they had found it entertaining. In subsequent years, however, I began to get notifications through Google Scholar of citations of the paper. To date, it has been cited 11 times and now even factors into my automatically calculated h-index. My hope was that the paper was being cited for its cautionary scholarly message; after reviewing the publications in which it is cited, however, I could find that this was the case in only two instances.23

Of the remaining nine publications, it was cited inappropriately in eight; I was unable to locate one of the references. In some cases, the context of the citation suggested that the authors had read the paper (or at least the title) but failed to understand that the thesis was not serious. In other cases, however, authors had cited the paper in support of statements that were either against cigarette smoking for endurance athletes (the opposite of the proposed thesis) or not related to endurance sports at all.

Sadly, this experience sheds light on two unfortunate aspects of present day academia and, in an ironic manner, further emphasises the original paper’s message. Firstly, although we now have the capability to search for articles on any subject in seconds, it’s clear that when writing papers, some authors fail even to skim the abstract of the paper they are citing. Do academic writers feel that reading the title of a work is sufficient, and do they feel that they need not investigate further if a study has sufficient methodological rigour, or is logically sound? Secondly, does this suggest that when authors do read a manuscript, in some cases they may lack the critical reading skills or even time to determine if the paper is serious or not?

The potential for this was emphasised by Manarin et al,3 describing the experience of asking students in first year undergraduate courses to evaluate my CMAJ article critically. Despite providing students with the original article, labelled “satire” with explanatory abstract, they reported that “many students read the article without challenging its conclusion.” Others became emotional because they disagreed with the conclusion, but were unable to articulate why the article was flawed, let alone recognise the actual message.

We now live in an era of “fake news,” when universally agreed upon, objective truths seem rare and science is often under attack. The defence of academics should be that in peer reviewed journals, all material has been subject to rigorous review before publication. Thus, journals should be a last fortress of trust in a world where people struggle to find reliable, unbiased sources of information. In order for academia to maintain this already fractured reputation, however, all involved must strive to be better in all aspects of our work.

So, what does this mean for satire in academia? I still believe that papers written in this manner can make important points, and I hope that this is not the death knell for this style of writing. There have been many humorous yet thought provoking papers written in this manner, and I would not want to see such efforts cease. Perhaps the solution is for academia to adopt some convention based on Poe’s Law,4 the internet maxim that a winking face emoji or other such symbol is necessary to clarify if a given statement is intended to be serious or only in jest. While I would find it heart breaking to see a winking face emoji at the end of a journal article title, this would surely be more clearly understood by people who are primarily used to reading online media.

It seems clear that some such change is necessary; the experience with my CMAJ manuscript has opened my eyes to the perils of such works. While my paper may have unwittingly led some athletes to take up cigarette smoking, the consequences would be considerably more dire if large numbers of people were to misinterpret the 2018 BMJ article, describing the positive results of a randomised controlled trial of parachutes to prevent death and major trauma in people jumping from aircraft.5

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: None.

References

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