Bob Dylan vs molecular cardiology: Scientists caught sneaking lyrics into academic papers

Two scientists have been caught competing to sneak Dylan lyrics into academic papers. It's an infantile prank that keeps workers entertained the world over, says Simon Usborne
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The Independent Culture

When tomorrow is a long time away, and you feel like you ain't going nowhere yet one more cup of coffee won't do; when you think to yourself, any day now, I shall be released from the onerous task of writing up my science research about farting, the solution is blowin' in the wind: throw in some Bob Dylan lyrics for the hell of it. Nobody will notice.

Except that they will notice, and now a banter-fuelled group of scientists in Sweden is explaining a game that has played out for 17 years. It started when John Jundberg and Eddie Weitzberg, Professors at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, wrote an article about their research into the passage of gas through intestines. The title: "Nitric Oxide and inflammation: The answer is blowing in the wind".

"We both really liked Bob Dylan and we thought the quotes really fitted nicely with what we were trying to achieve with the title," Professor Weitzberg told The Local, a Swedish newspaper.

The academics kept inserting Dylan titles and lyrics into their editorials and articles (find several in the first paragraph of this article, if you can be bothered), only hesitating when writing formal scientific papers. "We could have got in trouble for that," Weitzberg said. Years later, a librarian spotted an article written by two other professors called "Blood on the tracks: a simple twist of fate". She alerted the joke's originators, whom she had also rumbled, and, in a highbrow game of Dylan tennis (doubles), the four began competing to include the most lyrics into their work.

It is a totally childish enterprise, but one that has provided entertainment in various workplaces, not least newsrooms. A former journalist at the Daily Express writes: "In the 90s we had an ongoing competition across all departments to sneak Star Wars references into the paper. Things like 'stormtroopers' were quite easy... but it was definitely declared over when a trainee on the foreign desk (now a rather important heavyweight political journalist) got 'Jabba the Hutt' into a piece about Sarajevo."

England footballers have twice indulged in such behaviour. At the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, Rio Ferdinand faltered in a game of random French phrasemaking during media interviews when he got the giggles after answering a question, "C'est la vie". It was a poor follow-up to a game that Alan Shearer led during the previous World Cup in France. Players drew a singer or band name from a hat before speaking on air. Each mention of a song was worth a point.

Early on, Gareth Southgate got Wham/George Michael. When TV pundit Bob Wilson asked for his views on the team's training facilities, he replied: "It's hardly Club Tropicana." Wilson then probed the defender for some gossip about the team sheet. "You won't be getting any Careless Whispers from me, Bob," he said. Other players kept the game going, but the lads were rumbled when Shearer punched the air after realising he had poached a goal without even trying by uttering the phrase "Against All Odds" while holding the Phil Collins card to his chest.

But back to news, where mega-brain Malcolm Gladwell once waged word war as a lowly reporter on the science desk at the Washington Post. He and fellow hack Billy Booth first competed to insert the phrase "raises new and troubling questions" into their copy. Gladwell later recalled being 10-9 ahead with one day to go when Booth scored double points when editors also included the phrase in the headline of a story about declining exam grades. Not to be outdone, Gladwell challenged Booth to a new contest, involving the more obscure phrase "perverse and often baffling". Long story short: Gladwell won.

In Sweden, the Dylan-off is set to continue until the professors retire. They have since been joined by a fifth professor. It turns out Kenneth Chien, a heart expert, had been quoting Dylan for years with articles including "Tangled up in blue: Molecular cardiology in the postmolecular era". If or when a winner is declared, the prize, still to be claimed, is lunch in a local restaurant, where the professors may or may not enjoy hot chili peppers in the blistering sun.