Source: Rex Features
The dry, technical titles of most scientific papers are not known for attracting too many readers, even among specialists in adjacent research fields. So when a paper was published in December billing itself as “An In-Depth Analysis of a Piece of Shit”, scientists naturally flocked to it like flies to a pile of steaming excrement.
The collective mirth of the nearly 90,000 people who have viewed the paper since it was published on 20 December may have been heightened by its first figure, which partly consists of a crude line drawing of a naked woman passing a startlingly large stool.
The paper, the second half of whose title reads “Distribution of Schistosoma mansoni and Hookworm Eggs in Human Stool”, describes how best to obtain accurate counts for the number of eggs laid by a disease-causing worm in human faecal samples.
The paper’s senior author, Jurg Utzinger, assistant professor in epidemiology at the Swiss Tropical Institute, denied setting out to cause controversy or to put himself in the running for an Ig Nobel Prize (the spoof Nobel prizes awarded to serious research that also raises a smile).
He said that the title derived from the 2009 advertisement calling for a student to work on the project.
Dr Utzinger added that the “one brave student who stepped forward”, “Piece of Shit” lead author Stefanie Krauth (a PhD candidate at the Swiss institution), also produced the line drawing, which was crucial in explaining “to the study participants that we were interested in the real thing - the full ‘sausages’ - not just a tiny bit”.
He said that none of the paper’s referees had objected to the title. One had written: “The use of the word ‘shit’ is perhaps a bit gratuitous, but if that is what it takes to draw attention to neglected tropical disease, so be it!”
The paper has been reported by several newspapers, including France’s Le Monde. Dr Utzinger said he was “surprised by the many accurate summaries of our work”.
Ms Krauth added that positive comments on the paper far outnumbered the few negative remarks about the swearing.
“Piece of Shit” is by far the most read paper in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases’ six-year history.
The journal’s co-editor-in-chief, Peter Hotez, said that through peer review the “community had spoken. Given that neither the word nor the article were offensive to any particular group, and the title and figure were scientifically accurate, we did not feel compelled to make any additional editorial changes.”