Image: https://flic.kr/p/oyxdMu (CC BY 2.0)
You may be familiar with the Ig Nobel Prizes, which give out awards to research that makes people “laugh, and then think.” This year, pioneering research has been done on things like how mentally damaging it is to own a cat, using bacon to stop nosebleeds, and (yes, honestly) how reindeer react to seeing people who are disguised as polar bears. The winner history of the Ig Nobels is entertaining reading.
I happened yesterday on another outstanding piece of research on that great trauma that affects all of us in our working lives. I am speaking of course about the mysterious disappearance of all the teaspoons in the break room, and the mystery has been solved (deepened?) in this fine piece of research.
The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute
I’m writing about this issue partly because of the gravity of the spoon disappearance issue, and partly because a lot of you have to read journal articles for your study, and the above is a simple and elegant example that is somewhat entertaining reading.
Image: https://flic.kr/p/81aomA. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The abstract give a quick synopsis of what the article is about.
“Objectives To determine the overall rate of loss of workplace teaspoons and whether attrition and displacement are correlated with the relative value of the teaspoons or type of tearoom.”
The introduction gives a bit of background, and explains a bit about why the research has been done.
“Lacking any guidance from previous researchers, we set out to answer the age old question “Where have all the bloody teaspoons gone?””
The methods detail how the researchers went about it. This should really let you try it yourself if you want to.
“We purchased 32 plain stainless steel teaspoons, discreetly numbered with red nail polish on the undersides of the handles, and distributed into a subset of the eight tearooms”
The results show the data that came out of the research.
“After five months, 56 (80%) of 70 teaspoons had disappeared. The half life of the teaspoons was 81 days (that is, half had disappeared permanently after that time) compared with 63 days in the pilot study.”
The discussion provides some context and interpretation of the results.
“Although it seems unreasonable to say that the teaspoons are exerting any influence over the Burnet Institute’s employees (with the exception of the authors), their demonstrated ability to migrate and disappear shows that we have little or no control over them.”
The conclusions provide a summary of the work, and may include some recommendations.
“The high level of dissatisfaction with teaspoon coverage identified in our follow-up survey shows that teaspoons are an essential part of office life.”
The reference show where the authors got their supporting information. They are standing on the shoulders of giants, who are similarly obsessed with spoons.
Most research articles will follow this pattern, because it provides a logical flow from problem to solution, such as that is. So when reading them, bear in mind that they’re set out this way to help you understand them, and when writing your own articles, assignments or reports, bear in mind that in absence of a spoonful of sugar, a smooth, logical flow can help the medicine go down.