Scientific research can often be a dry and serious matter, and so academics can be forgiven for trying to spice things up where they can with a little creative flair. New research suggests that one musician in particular may be a source of inspiration, and his influence is picking up speed like a rolling stone.

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Karolinska Institutet scientists came to the world’s attention last year for their articles citing Bob Dylan.
Image credit: Gustav Mårtensson

This year’s Christmas edition of The BMJ features an investigation into the sway that musician Bob Dylan holds over biomedical research, following up a quirky trend that first came to the media’s attention last year.

In 1997, Jon Lundberg and Eddie Weitzberg, researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, had a paper published in Nature Medicine on nitric oxide gas in the respiratory tracts and intestine. The paper was entitled “Nitric Oxide and Inflammation: The answer is blowing in the wind,” referencing one of Dylan’s most popular songs.

A few years later, they spotted an article published by Jonas Frisén and Konstantinos Meletis, also from the Karolinska Institutet, tackling the possibility of blood cells changing into nerve cells. The article title also referenced Bob Dylan: “Blood on the tracks: a simple twist of fate.”

This discovery spurred Lundberg and Weitzberg on to reference Dylan in another article and to contact Frisén with a proposal for a friendly competition.

“The one who has written most articles with Dylan quotes, before going into retirement, wins a lunch,” said Lundberg, professor of Nitric Oxide Pharmacologics in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at Karolinska.

A fifth researcher, Prof. Kenneth Chien, is also involved in the bet, having penned articles with names such as “Tangled up in blue: Molecular cardiology in the post molecular era.”

At the time, Prof. Weitzberg insisted that this form of referencing was not exclusive to this small group of researchers. “We really are not the only ones who try to be smart and catchy in our headlines,” he told The Local in 2014.

Now, Carl Gornitzki, a librarian at Karolinska, and colleagues have investigated how the influence of Bob Dylan stretches outside of the Swedish university.

The researchers searched Medline using a list of Bob Dylan song and album titles, along with variations of some of Dylan’s more widely known song titles. They deemed 213 of 727 references to unequivocally cite the musician.

“The Times They Are A-Changin'” was the most cited song, appearing in 135 references, followed by “Blowin’ In The Wind,” which was cited 36 times. Also popular with researchers were “All Along The Watchtower” and “Like A Rolling Stone.”

Prof. Lundberg and Prof. Weitzberg were not the first to cite Bob Dylan. The earliest article identified by the researchers was published in the Journal of Practical Nursing in 1970. Interestingly, very few articles citing Dylan were identified between the first half of the 1970s – considered Dylan’s heyday – and 1990.

“However, since then, the number of articles has increased exponentially,” the authors write.

They suggest a number of reasons for this exponential increase, including a similar increase in the number of journal articles published each year and changes in indexing policies for editorial material. It could also be that those who grew up listening to Dylan in the 60s and 70s had, by 1990, become doctors, scientists and editors of medical journals.

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

While it may prove satisfying to researchers to tip their hat to an artist they greatly respect, the study also found that citing Dylan in a paper did not generate more attention within the research community, with Dylan articles cited slightly less than other articles on similar subjects.

Bob Dylan is not the first musician to have been studied by researchers this year. In May, Medical News Today reported on an article published in Lancet Psychiatry assessing how mental health issues are addressed in the lyrics of rap star Kendrick Lamar.