Scientists in Sweden Hide Bob Dylan Lyrics in Their Papers

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It’s not easy making the science of flatulence sound pleasant, but two researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm relied on a little help from Bob Dylan and managed a decent pun, at least. Jon Lundberg and Eddie Weitzburg's article, “Nitric Oxide and Inflammation: The Answer Is Blowing in the Wind,” was published 17 years ago and marked the beginning of a contest of sorts—the researcher who successfully sneaks the most Dylan lyrics into papers before retirement wins a free lunch.

“We both really liked Bob Dylan so when we set about writing an article concerning the measurement of nitric oxide gas in both the respiratory tracts and the intestines … the title came up and it fitted there perfectly,” Weitzburg tells the Karolinska Institute (KI) website. Both Lundberg and Weitzburg are professors in the KI’s physiology and pharmacology department.

Coincidentally, two other KI researchers, Jonas Frisén and Konstantinos Meletis, published their own Dylan-inspired article, “Blood on the Tracks: A Simple Twist of Fate” (the 1975 Dylan album Blood on the Tracks inspired the title). Frisén and Meletis were unaware of Lundberg and Weitzburg’s attempts to include Dylan lyrics in their work when they titled their paper and sprinkled Dylan references throughout it. When Lundberg and Weitzburg learned about Frisén and Meletis, they asked if they were up for a friendly competition. They agreed. Around the same time, Lundberg and Weitzburg published another piece, an editorial with the title, “The Times They Are a-Changing,” while Frisén followed up with the paper “Eph Receptors Tangled up in Two”—a play on “Tangled up in Blue.”

Lundberg and Weitzburg made the next move with their article, “Dietary Nitrate—A Slow Train Coming.” In it, they paraphrased Dylan by writing “We know something is happening but we don’t know what it is—Do we, Dr. Jones?” This is a nod to the song “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which focuses on strange encounters of Mr. Jones. Fortuitously, they have a British colleague with the name Dr. Jones.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Chien, a professor in the department of cell and molecular biology at KI, was showing his love of Dylan with his own papers, completely unaware that a competition had begun. His paper? “Tangled up in Blue: Molecular Cardiology in the Postmolecular Era.” When the group learned of Chien’s contributions, he too became part of the contest.

The group says they only include Dylan references in review articles and editorials because peer-reviewed journal articles have a higher standard. While the contest is open to anyone, there are some general rules.

“It’s important that the quote is linked to the scientific content that it reinforces the message and raises the quality of the article as such, not the reverse,” says Jonas Frisén.

Why are all these scientists attracted to Dylan? Meletis, a research assistant in the neuroscience department, explains, “A musician who merely continues down the same highway for 30 years is not one who many want to listen to. Good music is innovative, like Bob Dylan’s. And the same thing applies to good research. A researcher must also try to find new and different paths.”