Lo and Behold! Doctors dig Dylan

January 14, 2016 - 06:04

Medical researchers seem disposed to borrowing from Bob Dylan’s copious output of lyrics. This has resulted in papers with titles like “Knockin’ on pollen’s door”.

Bob Dylan performing at Drammenshallen near Oslo in 1981. Surely some members of the audience have become researchers. Will they look to Dylan in their publications? (Photo: NTB Scanpix)

No doubt about it, Dylan has cranked out a wealth of great lyrics.

It was revealed a couple of years ago that a few of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute researchers had engaged in a friendly wager to sneak his lyrics into their papers.

Biomedical scientists are among the many with a zest for Zimmerman’s wealth of song titles and poetic lyrics.

The number of medical research articles using Dylan quotes has risen exponentially in the past few years, write Carl Gornitzki and his colleagues at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute in the Christmas issue of the British medical journal BMJ.

They looked into fellow medical researchers’ use of Dylan.

Rise in the 1990s

Gornitzki and co-workers took a list of the singer-poet’s song titles and searched for matches or spins on them in medical research articles in the comprehensive database Medline.

The first reference they found was from 1970 in the Journal of Practical Nursing. The title was quite simply: “The times they are a-changin’”.

Dylan’s influence on headings in research literature seemed scant in the following decade but in the 1990s it took off like a Buick 6 on Highway 61.

Like a rolling histone?

Old roads in medicine are rapidly agein’ and references to Dylan’s early warnings of transitions have been eagerly used, especially in editorials. A quick search in the research database PubMed reveals 87 articles containing the phrase “the times they are a-changin”.

Another favourite is “Blowin’ in the Wind”, according to the Karolinska workmates.

In some cases the researchers fell for the temptation to paraphrase Dylan lyrics, with or without flourish – as in the aforementioned “Knockin’ on pollen’s door”. Or how about “Like a rolling histone”? (Histones are special proteins that play a vital role in regulating our genes.)

In one title the authors even managed to squeeze two Dylan titles into one: “Blood on the tracks: a simple twist of fate”. For those who are out of the loop, “Simple Twist of Fate” is a song on the album “Blood on the Tracks”.

Ageing fans?

The researchers are uncertain why Dylan’s lyrics are turning up exceedingly often in research literature. But they have their theories.

The most obvious is that far more articles in English are being published worldwide now than in past decades.

Also, editors and reviewers are more tolerant of eccentric titles than they used to be. 

And of course, a share of the young Dylan fans from the 1960s and ‘70s have now become senior researchers and editors of medical journals.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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Translated by
Glenn Ostling