Who hasn’t worked with a disagreeable person—and in the world of science publishing, authored a paper with one? That wasn’t exactly what went through the mind of William Hoover, a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, when he included an Italian co-author to his 1987 paper. But certainly, frustration and a little juvenilia can be potent driving forces in a fake-name prank.
In particular, Hoover managed to add, during his review of page proofs, a supposed co-author named Stronzo Bestiale. Stronzo is actually an Italian vulgarity for a body part at the end of the digestion process, but if you must know the literal translation, run it through Google Translate. If you’re feeling especially sophomoric, hit the speaker icon.
The perpetrator of the joke actually wasn’t even sure what stronzo bestiale meant at first. Hoover fixated on the words “because two Italian young women punctuated their conversation on a flight to Paris with incessant ‘Che Stronzo’ and ‘Stronzo Bestiale’,” he recalled in an email to me. An Italian colleague told him that “stronzo was a pile of fecal material and that stronzo bestiale was a very big, unusually impressive pile.” Whether the name rightfully refers to the body part rather than to the material that comes out of that body part doesn’t really matter—it’s all nastiness in the end.
The joke name may not be as pun-clever as those that Bart Simpson induces bartender Moe to say (“Where’s Amanda Hugginkiss? Why can’t I find Amanda Hugginkiss?”). But that’s perhaps why “Stronzo Bestiale” slipped unnoticed into volume 48, numbers 3/4 of the Journal of Statistical Physics, published then by Plenum Publishing. I was working there at the time, and no one knew anything was amiss until a reporter from Italy reached out to Plenum. “I was totally surprised by a call from Italy,” said Jim Langlois, the journal’s production editor, as we recalled the incident over a recent lunch together.
After the call, the stronzo hit the fan: panic broke out in the office, Jim and I recollected, as more calls came from Italy, some quite outraged. The journal’s editor, Joel Lebowitz of Rutgers University, expressed regret in a later issue. “I apologize to the readers for not catching this stupidity of the other two authors,” he wrote.
Despite the authorship, the paper itself, “Diffusion in a Periodic Lorentz Gas,” was no April Fools’ gag. As Vito Tartamella wrote last fall about the incident, Hoover was upset over the rejection of two papers, which described a new computational method for molecular dynamics. Not that the work was bad, Hoover felt. It was just too new, and scientists are a conservative bunch. Hoover managed to publish both papers eventually—in the case of his S. Bestiale work, he merely changed the title and resubmitted the manuscript. Since its publication, the paper has been cited 164 times, according to Google Scholar.
The incident does not appear to have left any hard feelings. The work “led to a publication by Joel and a couple of coauthors following up in 1993,” remarked Hoover, who described his relationship with Lebowitz as cordial and respectful. The first author of the paper, Bill Moran, ”went along with the joke and didn't mind,” Hoover said. “I was, after all, his Ph.D. advisor.”
This prank wasn’t the first time a fake author found a way to live on in the scientific literature. In 1975, physicist Jack Hetherington added his Siamese cat Chester as author, under the name “F.D.C. Willard,” for a paper published in Physical Review Letters. According to Wikipedia, he did that because the journal objected to his use of “we” when writing as a sole authors, so he added his cat. Fake names almost certainly pepper the acknowledgements section of papers. Hoover admits that some, such as “J.S. Pack” (Joe Six Pack), made it into a few of his works.
There remains the larger issue of how to prevent editors from getting punked. Adding “Stronzo Bestiale” during the page-proof stage, when authors have a last chance to make corrections, was a good move on Hoover’s part because proof corrections are unlikely to go through peer review. Any request to add an author, however, raises a red flag that should tell an editor to look into the matter, explains my office colleague Noah Gray, senior editor at Nature (Scientific American is published by Nature Publishing Group).
In the publish-or-perish world of academia, few researchers would probably dare jeopardize their careers with a prank, especially if the work itself is serious. But given the number of papers published every year, who knows how many stronzos are really out there.
Okay, We Give Up - Editor’s April Fools’ note from 2005, in response to letter writers who said we should “stick to science.”