Nevermore: The Use of Pop-Culture References in Scientific Articles

[Note: This article was first published on Medium.com 10 March 2018.]

Have you ever used a quote or phrase from population culture in an attempt to make a point? I believe we have all done this at some point, if for no other reason than to add flair and a bit of window-dressing to our otherwise mundane discussions.

But what about professional or scientific discussions? Would you insert a quote from Mad Max: Fury Road to provide a mental picture of a dystopian future? Would you quote the Joker from Dark Knight as a reference to the fallacy of the greed theory of civil war?

In fact, these inserts, and countless others, can be found throughout the extant literature of just about every discipline.

Now, before we rant and rave about the inappropriateness (or banality) of such references in scientific literature, let us also consider how often professors, lecturers, and other researchers include popular culture references in presentations, lessons, and other learning material. Youtube is flooded with hilarious and intriguing videos of lectures during which popular culture is used as a catalyst for connecting and engaging with the audience (can we please take a moment to appreciate this celebratory dab?). Some teachers have gone so far as to use The Simpsons and video games to communicate information and drive classroom discussion (for example, this enterprising professor who employed the use of Assassin’s Creed for a history lesson).

I often use popular culture references in my own lectures, connecting them theoretical constancies (as a tangential example, recall the movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and his teaching of Bach’s Minuet in G via The Toy’s recognizable one-hit wonder, A Lover’s Concerto).

Most of us, I wager, will forgive these transgressions (or perhaps praise them as creative and necessary to reach new generations of increasingly isolated and pop-culture dependent learners). But what about the issue I brought up at the beginning of this article?

What about the use of popular culture references within scientific, peer-reviewed research?

The answer to the question lies within the nature of the published work. If the work is peer-reviewed and contains these types of references, we can assume that the reviewers felt that the information, at worst, did not distract the reader and, at best, may have added some value (if only to entertain).

The problem is that scholars are publishing more and more research on non-peer-reviewed, open-source platforms.

This environment is ripe for situations in which inappropriate metaphors and unchecked catalysts are employed to make arguments and support theories (i.e. making a critical scientific point, but not caveating the obvious historical or cultural inaccuracies of the pop-culture comparison).

All of this to say: Take caution. The nerds of the world (I’m talking to you, my fellow researchers, passionate and tenacious as you are) must not only check our own use of attention-grabbers and other attempts to “stay relevant,” but hold each other accountable for the information we disseminate. Part of being a credible expert is pointing out the misuse and misrepresentation of scientific processes and information.