At the end of 2018, a paper was making the rounds through Twitter, and even scored a mention on the Tonight Show and the Late Late Show. When I first read it, I couldn’t stop laughing. What helped this paper stand out and jump to being one of the top 500 most talked about papers of all time in one week? A research topic that resonated with the public combined with a sense of humor. We talked with authors of “Everything is Awesome: Don’t Forget the Lego”, published in the December 2018 issue of Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health (JPCH), about what set them on the path to studying whether or not it is safe for children to swallow Legos, and the role they think humor can play in science communication.
Q. At what point during the research or publication process did your team decide to approach this paper with its current humorous tone?
TESSA: It was always going to be humorous. We specifically sat down together to come up with a light-hearted (but relevant) topic in the run-up to Christmas.
DAMIAN: The tradition in some journals of having Christmas fun editions was a perfect opportunity to undertake research (it was a core principle that the work would be undertaken using study conditions) which would be educational, but also fun.
HENRY: I think it’s also in keeping with our core values that we want to engage and educate our readership. A positive way to engage is to entertain, and well-considered, thoughtful humor can play an important role in this.
Q. What was the editorial reception to your paper's tone?
ANDY: We were rejected by four journals prior to JPCH picking us up. But after going through the process of swallowing the Lego we couldn't just give up!
GRACE: The wonderful editorial response from JPCH byDavid Isaacs was both amusing and told us that we had found a team whom we were able to make smile and who appreciated our bit of creative research.
Your paper is outrageous. However, few people were more scatological than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of my musical heroes. I, therefore, have great pleasure in informing you that your manuscript entitled "Everything is awesome" has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health.
Q. Do you think that using humor and different styles of communication can open up new audiences for academic research?
TESSA: At Don’t Forget the Bubbles (DFTB), we work particularly hard to achieve knowledge translation. That is making scientific info accessible to healthcare professionals and relevant to their clinical practice. Using humor in the paper helped with knowledge translation to the public. It allowed the mainstream media to use the comedy element of the paper to deliver an important message to the public about the safety of various ingested objects.
ANDY: But humor can be overdone. You don’t want every single paper to read like a Monty Python skit. The paper was written in simple language, which meant most journalists could parse the abstract with ease. This allowed a gateway into the paper itself.
GRACE: I agree that being open to using different styles of communication will help to broaden the ability of wider audiences to understand and appreciate research that has been performed. In the written word, we should strive to develop clarity and stay aware of the difference between using technical terms appropriately vs slipping into paragraphs of jargon.
We also disseminated knowledge about this paper in other ways: as an infographic, via our blog and with the video teaser which Damian put together. These strategies have been and could be applied to other, more serious research.
Regarding the use of humor: harnessing the emotive response is a great way to help engage audiences. Like Tessa said, it is great to be able to use it as a pathway towards delivering a public message. We had a lot of fun in the intentional creation of humor through things like the scoring system. The goal of the paper primarily was to make people smile. I don't think humor should be utilized at random when crafting a paper. It should have a clear intent and purpose and it is important that it does not distract or confuse the key message.
DAMIAN: I think there is lots of learning here. Not all papers can strike this tone, but the imagery captured imagination. I think it’s imperative for research that could have widespread public impact for the authors to think about how their narrative might best reach patients. I also liked the shoe-horning of the message of the dangers of button batteries onto this. The interviews I did with radio stations also seemed to enjoy this mix of humor with a serious message.
Q. Any advice for other research teams that want to approach an upcoming paper or project with humor or levity?
ANDY: Don't try and force it. Most people who read scientific papers are nerds (myself included) so subtle in-jokes are a great way in.
HENRY: Humor is another tool for engagement; people won’t laugh at a joke they’re not listening to! That is, humor can be the hook that promotes thinking about your work. Humor seems to work when it augments the message rather than smothering it and is congruent with the desired readership.
Q: This paper has seen an amazing reception in popular media - did this surprise your team? Do you think this kind of exposure will help improve this paper's impact, and the impact of future projects?
TESSA: We thought our peers would find it amusing, but the spread to popular media came as a lovely surprise. We tried to make the most of it and enjoyed it all hugely. Featuring in the opening monologues for The Late Late show and The Tonight Show was truly amazing (and a very unexpected consequence!)
ANDY: The global exposure certainly seems to have helped the paper’s Altmetric score and we made sure most of the newspapers/blogposts would link back to the original paper.
GRACE: We had hoped for a good response but the response we received well exceeded my expectations and was both wonderful and a little surreal!
One of the reasons why I think our paper had such reach is that the topic is familiar and well known to many - I've heard and seen radio presenters, journalists and people online sharing their family’s (including their pets’!) personal experiences with swallowing objects and how Lego was a part of their life (whether via play or the pain of stepping on it!)
I think that the uptake with the paper means many more people are now aware of DFTB as a group and will hopefully translate into more subscribers and uptake of our other work.
DAMIAN: It will be interesting to see if the paper is cited and what for. I suspect it will be cited in relation to its social media impact but very possible it won’t be cited at all for its scientific impact (potentially not unjustly!). It does beg a question about the balance of Altmetric scores with more traditional metrics.
Regardless of future citations, it’s clear this paper had an impact that will help its authors, the journal, and the general public who now know just how much to panic if a child swallows an object they shouldn’t! Our thanks to the authors, Andrew Tagg, Damian Roland, Grace SY Leo, Katie Knight, Henry Goldstein, and Tessa Davis.