If someone says they are approaching a task in “a scientific manner”, it is normal to presume that they intend to pay attention to detail, plan meticulously and ensure that they carry out whatever it is they are doing in a considered way.
However, if the revelations of hundreds of scholars from the scientific community earlier this month are anything to go by, this reputation for fastidiousness may not be wholly deserved.
On 7 January, Twitter user “Dr Leigh” (@Dr_Leigh) tweeted the following: “We did experiment 2 because we didn’t know what the fuck to make of experiment 1 #overlyhonestmethods.”
Placing the “#” icon before a phrase creates what is known as a hashtag, and it allows related tweets to be grouped together. The #overlyhonestmethods tag swiftly prompted scientists from across the globe to add it to tweets explaining (with tongues firmly in cheeks) how their own research labs really operate.
“There should have been more experiments but our funding ran out but we published it anyway”, Magdeline Lum (@ScientistMags), an Australian “chemist and science communicator”, tweeted.
“Experiment was repeated until we had three statistically significant similar results and could discard the outliers,” wrote David Logan (@angerstusson), professor of plant physiology at the Universite d’Angers in France.
Pennsylvania-based Rebecca Weinberg (@sciliz), a self-styled “scientific lizard”, said her lab’s timing mechanisms required playing the OutKast hit Hey Ya! “The Eppendorf tubes were ‘shaken like a polaroid picture’ until that part of the song ended.” University of Manchester PhD student Pete Mills (@pedmills) admitted that “we incubated this for however long lunch was”; while trend-starter Dr Leigh revealed: “Incubation lasted three days because this is how long the undergrad forgot the experiment in the fridge.”
Laziness also appears to play a role. “This dye was selected because the bottle was within reach,” declared University of Melbourne doctoral student Emma Hooley (@atomselectrons). University of East Anglia postdoctoral researcher Paul Coxon (@paulcoxon) admitted: “Experiments were repeated only once because our [principal investigator] was away at a conference & quite frankly NO work got done that week.”
Elsewhere, life got in the way. “The data is old because in between writing the first draft and doing the revisions I had a baby,” said Heather Piwowar, a postdoctoral student at Duke University.
Meanwhile, Ethan O. Perlstein (@eperlste), who has just concluded a five- year fellowship in the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University, confessed that “We used jargon instead of plain English to prove that a decade of grad school and postdoc made us smart.”
Dr Leigh, a research neuropharmacologist at a “specialized research institute”, said on her blog Neurodynamics that “#overlyhonestmethods started as being about revealing the ‘between the lines’ in our methods sections. Nobody states that procedures are scheduled around things like lunch breaks or other human elements of our day.
“But we all know when we read ‘behavioral assessments were collected at 0900 and 1300’ that the authors wanted to sit the fuck down and eat something in the middle of their day.”
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