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Knockin’ on science’s door: How Bob Dylan’s lyrics have found their way into the medical literature

A literature search turned up 213 titles through May 2015 that “unequivocally” include wording from the Minnesota-born musician’s songs.

A literature search turned up 213 titles through May 2015 that “unequivocally” include wording from the Minnesota-born musician’s songs.
REUTERS/Ki Price

Last year, several researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden admitted that for the past two decades they had been playfully competing with each other to see how many Bob Dylan lyrics they could sneak into their scientific papers.

Whoever published the most articles with Dylan references by retirement would win bragging rights and a prize: lunch in a local restaurant.

The public revelation of that competition got the Karolinska Institute’s librarian, Carl Gornitzke, thinking: How many other researchers have been quietly doing the same thing over the years? 

So Gornitzke joined forces with two colleagues and searched the biomedical literature for articles that cite Bob Dylan lyrics in their titles. Their findings were published in the BMJ’s Christmas issue, an annual assortment of quirky and fun (but still scientifically sound) studies.

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The literature search turned up 213 titles through May 2015 that “unequivocally” include wording from the Minnesota-born musician’s songs. (Hundreds of other titles may have been alluding to Dylan’s lyrics, but the references are not clear, say Gornitzke and his colleagues.)

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The earliest unequivocal reference belongs to a 1970 paper in the Journal of Practical Nursing titled “The times they are a changin.’ ” It refers, of course, to the title track on Dylan’s 1964 album.

That song/album title is, in fact, the Dylan lyric most often referenced in biomedical papers, appearing 135 times, according to Gornitzke and his colleagues. It’s particularly popular in editorials.

“An ingenious example appeared in the journal Burns,” the researchers write. “The author begins by paraphrasing Dylan, ‘Come editors and authors throughout the land,’ and starts off every passage of the editorial with a quote from the same Dylan song, discussing the force of change and how it is inevitable.”

‘Like a rolling histone’

Second place for most-popular-Dylan-song-title-used-by-scientists goes to “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It appears in the titles of 36 biomedical papers, starting with a 1975 editorial in the British Medical Journal (BMJ’s former title) on the health risks associated with hang gliding. Other Dylan titles used frequently by scientists are “All Along the Watchtower” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Creating puns with Dylan’s titles seems to amuse the scientists, as Gornitzke and his colleagues explain (get ready to groan):

For instance, the title of a recent review on epigenetics by Hermanson and coworkers from the Karolinska Institute included the phrase “Like a rolling histone.”

“Dietary nitrate — a slow train coming,” is another example from the Karolinska Institute. This letter ends by referring to the work of Andrew Jones at the University of Exeter: “Therefore, when summarizing our current understanding, we cannot resist the temptation to paraphrase Bob Dylan: ‘We know something is happening, but we don’t know what it is—Do we, Dr Jones?’”

In yet another article from the Karolinska Institute, the authors managed to combine two Dylan references into the title of a review on the generation of neurones from bone marrow cells: “Blood on the tracks: a simple twist of fate?” “Simple Twist of Fate” is included on the album Blood on the Tracks, released in 1975 and widely regarded as one of Dylan’s greatest albums.

There’s also this clever dylanesque title, which headed a study published earlier this year in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science: “Knockin’ on pollen’s door: live cell imaging of early polarization events in germinating Arabidopsis pollen.” It, of course, paraphrases Dylan’s 1973 song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

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Paying homage

Although scientific papers that cite Dylan’s lyrics in their titles have appeared in some of the most prestigious journals (six such articles were published in Nature, for example), such references aren’t a guarantee that a paper will get professional attention.

In fact, as Gornitzke and his colleagues note, “Dylan articles are cited less than other similar articles.”

The researchers also point out that most of the references in the medical literature to Dylan’s songs have occurred since 1990. They offer several possible reasons for this finding, including this one: “Maybe the explanation lies in the fact that some of the young and radical students of the 1960s who listened to Dylan ended up as medical doctors and scientists and, perhaps more importantly, as editors of journals in the 1990s and onwards.”

“Whatever the explanation, it is clear that Dylan’s rich song catalogue has provided a source of inspiration for medical scientists,” they add.

Although not, I might add, as much as a group of other rock stars from the ‘60s.

To all Second Opinion readers: Have a Happy New Year!