18 June 2010

The Meme's Tale

This past Sunday, my Viennese friend Michael Lorenz posted the following on his Facebook account (the account is currently inactive on unrelated grounds):



I'm sure some of my readers, even if they don't know German, will immediately recognize this from the English phrases alone. It is a satire of cliches in scientific writing that has been circulating for many years.  Like most memes of this sort, its origin is vague, and I couldn't quite place where I'd first seen it.

We were surprised when a mutual friend and his partner, a scientist, reacted extremely negatively to Michael's post, apparently taking it as a serious and scurrilous slur on scientists, and even going so far as to recommend that Michael delete it. My perplexity over this reaction prompted me to investigate the background of the piece.


The earliest source I have found on the Web dates from 1997. Here, for example, is a full version from around that time from the site ENW (Emergency Nursing World):

sign_new-greengold.gif (1164 bytes)"Scientific Jargon"

by Dyrk Schingman, Oregon State University


After several years of studying and hard work, I have finally learned scientific jargon.

The following list of phrases and their definitions will help you to understand that mysterious language of science and medicine.



"IT HAS LONG BEEN KNOWN"...I didn't look up the original reference.


"A DEFINITE TREND IS EVIDENT"...These data are practically meaningless.


"WHILE IT HAS NOT BEEN POSSIBLE TO PROVIDE DEFINITE ANSWERS TO THE QUESTIONS,"... An unsuccessful experiment, but I still hope to get it published.


"THREE OF THE SAMPLES WERE CHOSEN FOR DETAILED STUDY"...The other results didn't make any sense.


"TYPICAL RESULTS ARE SHOWN"...This is the prettiest graph.



"THESE RESULTS WILL BE IN A SUBSEQUENT REPORT"...
I might get around to this sometime, if pushed/funded.


"THE MOST RELIABLE RESULTS ARE OBTAINED BY JONES"... He was my graduate student; his grade depended on this.


"IN MY EXPERIENCE"... once


"IN CASE AFTER CASE"... Twice



"IN A SERIES OF CASES"... Thrice



"IT IS BELIEVED THAT"... I think.



"IT IS GENERALLY BELIEVED THAT"...A couple of other guys think so too.



"CORRECT WITHIN AN ORDER OF MAGNITUDE"...Wrong.


"ACCORDING TO STATISTICAL ANALYSIS"...Rumor has it.


"A STATISTICALLY ORIENTED PROJETION OF THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THESE FINDINGS"... A wild guess.


"A CAREFUL ANALYSIS OF OBTAINABLE DATA"...Three pages of notes were obliterated when I  knocked over a glass of beer.


"IT IS CLEAR THAT MUCH ADDITIONAL WORK WILL BE REQUIRED BEFORE A COMPLETE UNDERSTANDING OF THIS PHENOMENA OCCURS"... I don't understand it.


"AFTER ADDITIONAL STUDY BY MY COLLEAGUES"... They don't understand it either.


"THANKS ARE DUE TO JOE BLOTZ FOR ASSITANCE WITH THE EXPERIMENT AND TO ANDREA SCHAEFFER FOR VALUABLE DISCUSSIONS"... Mr. Blotz did the work and Ms. Shaeffer explained to me what it meant.


"A HIGHLY SIGNIFICANT AREA FOR EXPLORATORY STUDY"...A totally useless topic selected by my committee.


"IT IS HOPED THAT THIS STUDY WILL STIMULATE FURTHER INVESTIGATION IN THIS FIELD"... I quit.


"This may be used or broadcast in any form as long as I receive credit.

©Dyrk Schingman"
as submitted by Tina Denetclaw, Pharm.D., BCPS

The piece turns up very often on the Internet, both with and without the attribution to "Dyrk Schingman" from "Oregon State University." For example, a Google search on "dyrk schingman scientific jargon" returns 2700 hits, all to this same piece.

The hits comprise a wide variety of sites and journals. The top hit in Google is an otherwise defunct account at the University of North Carolina. Other hits on the first page of the search results include Pub Med (the record for the publication of the piece in the Western Journal of Medicine); the site Nursing2010; a site associated with the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne; the site Humanics Ergonomics (whatever that is); a link to the reproduction of the piece in an appendix to the book Mastering Scientific and Medical Writing: A Self-Help Guide, from Springer Verlag; and a link to another printing in the newsletter Wetting Front, from the Water Management Research Unit Newsletter of the USDA-ARS Conservation and Production Research Laboratory. The piece also turns up on the archives of discussion boards and Google Groups, such as "Epistemology" (where it is part of the discussion "Physics in Time and Time in Physics").  A search in Google Books shows that the piece has been published in several books, including books on scientific writing (presumably as an example of what not to do) and humor books. This past February, it showed up on a blog at the Nature Publishing Group. The attribution is missing there; the blogger refers to the piece, appropriately, as "chain mail," but also says she "LOL'ed" when she read it, which is presumably why she reposted it.

A search on one or more characteristic phrases from the piece, without the reference to "Schingman", produces thousands of additional hits. For example, a Google search on the quoted phrase "While it has not been possible to provide definite answers" produced 7,670 hits, a random sample of which (at least from the first 18 pages of hits) all linked to this piece in whole or in part. Here's one (from p. 18 of the Google search results) with a partial translation (at least, I suppose it's a translation) into Vietnamese, with some small modifications, from Hanoi-Amsterdam.org:

Một số thuật ngữ khoa học được ngầm hiểu trong giới thực nghiệm nhưng không hay được nói ra!

- "IT HAS LONG BEEN KNWON ..." : Tôi không thể tìm được tài liệu tham khảo gốc...

- "OF GREAT THEORETICAL AND PRATICAL IMPORTANCE" : Vấn đề thú vị đối với tôi.

- "WHILE IT HAS NOT BEEN POSSIBLE TO PROVIDE DEFINITE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTION ..." : Mấy thí nghiệm đã không cho kết quả như mong muốn, nhưng tôi coi như chưa công bố.

- "EXTREMELY HIGH PURITY, SUPERPURITY" : Các thành phần unknown nằm trong giới hạn cho phép của hãng sản xuất.

- "THREE OF THE SAMPLES WERE CHOSEN FOR DETAILED STUDY" : Các mẫu còn lại cho kết quả không mong muốn hoặc không thể lý giải được.

- "HANDLED WITH EXTREME CARE DURING EXPERIMENTS" : Không bị rơi giọt hóa chất nào ra sàn.

- "TYPICAL RESULTS ARE SHOWN" : Những kết quả tốt nhất được đưa ra.

- "PRESUMABLY AT LONGER TIMES ..." : Tôi không đủ thời gian để thực hiện.

- "THESE RESULTS WILL BE REPORTED AT A LATER DATE" : Tôi có kế hoạch đi nghỉ trong thời gian này.

Cao Xuân Hiếu - Sinh 94-97

In fact, the piece has been translated into several languages; it seems to have been reproduced especially often in Korean.

Clearly it has been very popular.

The version that Michael Lorenz reproduces comes, he tells me, from the Viennese newspaper Der Standard in 2006, where it lacks any attribution. However, a Google search shows that the piece was produced widely in German-language newspapers without attribution around that time in versions identical or nearly identical to this one.

It's curious, though, that a Google search on the name Dyrk Schingman turns up only references to this piece, and no personal references of any kind to someone with that name. Similarly, the only reference to a "Schingman" in PubMed is to the publication of this piece in the Western Journal of Medicine. Nor does there seem ever to have been a Dyrk Schingman at Oregon State University.

However, there is a Dyrk Schlingman, apparently a veterinarian in Oregon, who seems, among other things, recently to have been the Medical Director for the Oregon Racing Commission. And the piece in question here is occasionally attributed to Schlingman, although not nearly so often as it is attributed to "Schingman."

So the most widely distributed copyright line would appear to be, ironically, a typo.

The piece possesses every common characteristic of an Internet meme:  it has been very widely reproduced, often without the original attribution.  It seems momentarily to have tickled the fancy of a very large number of people just long enough for them to copy, paste, and repost.

Our friend's partner had suggested that the cliches found in the "Scientific Jargon" would never be accepted by reputable journals, so I used Google Scholar to investigate which, if any, of the phrases actually occurred in legitimate articles indexed by Google Scholar.  Preliminary results are in the following table (SJ = the original piece, "Scientific Jargon"):

"IT HAS LONG BEEN KNOWN"

102,000

1,100 in 2010

"A DEFINITE TREND IS EVIDENT"

56



"WHILE IT HAS NOT BEEN POSSIBLE TO PROVIDE DEFINITE ANSWERS TO THE QUESTIONS"

4

All from SJ

"THREE OF THE SAMPLES WERE CHOOSEN FOR DETAILED STUDY"

24

Mostly from SJ

"TYPICAL RESULTS ARE SHOWN"

18,200



"THESE RESULTS WILL BE IN A SUBSEQUENT REPORT"

6

All but one from SJ

"THE MOST RELIABLE RESULTS ARE OBTAINED BY"

97



"IN MY EXPERIENCE"

91,700

1,600 in 2010

"IN CASE AFTER CASE"

5,660



"IN A SERIES OF CASES"

15,200



"IT IS BELIEVED THAT"

314,000

12,200 in 2010

"IT IS GENERALLY BELIEVED THAT"

111,000

1,730 in 2010

"CORRECT WITHIN AN ORDER OF MAGNITUDE"

205



"ACCORDING TO STATISTICAL ANALYSIS"

1,280



"A STATISTICALLY ORIENTED PROJECTION OF THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THESE FINDINGS"

6

All from SJ

"A CAREFUL ANALYSIS OF OBTAINABLE DATA"

9

All but one from
SJ

 "IT IS CLEAR THAT MUCH ADDITIONAL WORK WILL BE REQUIRED"

30



"AFTER ADDITIONAL STUDY BY MY COLLEAGUES"

7

All from SJ

"THANKS ARE DUE TO" "FOR ASSISTANCE WITH THE EXPERIMENT"  "FOR VALUABLE DISCUSSIONS"

8

All from SJ


"A HIGHLY SIGNIFICANT AREA FOR EXPLORATORY STUDY"

10

All but one from
SJ

"IT IS HOPED THAT THIS STUDY WILL STIMULATE FURTHER INVESTIGATION IN THIS FIELD"

12

Ca. 6 of 12 from
SJ

So it's clear that some of the satirized phrases are, in fact, quite common in published research articles, and others seem to be unique (or nearly so) to the "Schingman" meme.
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