Two Good Reasons To Always Read the Methods Section of a Scientific Paper

Sure, you could skip straight to "Conclusions" and get your soundbite. But if you make a habit of avoiding "Methods and Materials" you will miss out on some classic moments of science humor—both intentional and otherwise.


Do you know how hard it is to find Flickr shots of people reading journal articles? We'll settle for cute, instead. From KOMUnews via CC

In my summer reading, I came across two excellent examples…

1) Chicken Soup for the Scientist's Soul (And Lunch)

The Paper: "Chicken Soup Inhibits Neutrophil Chemotaxis In Vitro", in the October 2000 issue of the journal Chest. Authors: Barbara O. Rennard, BA, Ronald F. Ertl, BS, Gail L. Gossman, BS, Richard A. Robbins, MD, FCCP, and Stephen I. Rennard, MD, FCCP.

The Discovery: My friend Jeff, Ph.D., who works for a friendly Environmental Sciences department somewhere in the South, sent me a link to this paper, which attempts to establish a medical explanation for why your Grammy was always feeding you chicken soup at the slightest hint of a sniffle. The authors theorize that chicken soup may have some mild anti-inflammatory effects, which could account for its popularity as folk medicine. In fact, according to the paper, the idea of treating respiratory illness with chicken soup dates at least back to the 12th century C.E., when it was recommended by the Egyptian Jewish physician and philosopher Maimonides.

Which is kind of nifty.

And the team does find some evidence supporting their theory, at least in the lab, where they exposed white blood cells called neutrophils to varying concentrations of chicken soup. Neutrophils play an important role in inflammation and higher concentrations of soup seemed to block them from doing this. You can read the whole paper online.

The funny part? They included the actual chicken soup recipe used in the study under "Methods and Materials". Actual quote from the paper:

Traditional chicken soup was prepared according to a family recipe, which will be referred to as "Grandma's soup" (C. Fleischer; personal communication; 1970).

I haven't tried it yet, but I'm planning on making a batch sometime this fall. The paper says the recipe is "very highly regarded locally" (a claim they back up with a citation).

2) Weekend at Bernie's

The Paper: "Sexual conflict over the duration of copulation in Drosophila
montana: why is longer better?", in the June 12, 2009 issue of BMC Evolutionary Biology. Authors: Dominique Mazzi, Jenni Kesäniemi, Anneli Hoikkala and Kirsten Klappert.

The Discovery: I wrote about this research for the National Geographic News Web site. The basic gist: Male D. montana flies get more of an evolutionary benefit from longer sex. Females, meanwhile, do better with a shorter session. The research proved that the female flies had adapted in ways that allowed them to counter males' ability to hold them still. Turns out, the ladies had more control over the length of sex than anyone previously thought.

In my initial interviews, author Kirsten Klappert explained that the team had "incapacitated" the female flies to see how long sex lasted when lady flies had no control. Naturally, my editor and I were curious as to just how this worked.

Apparently, it works best if you kill the female flies.

Rather than engaging in insect bondage, the Methods section clarified that the team had gassed female flies to death, propped them up so they appeared alive and interested in sex, and tricked the male flies into necrophilia.

And you thought being detail-oriented was boring.