February 26, 2015
Last October, Mike posted a tutorial on how to choose a paper title, then followed it up by evaluating the titles of his own papers. He invited me to do the same for my papers. I waited a few days to allow myself to forget Mike’s comments on our joint papers – not too hard during my fall anatomy teaching – and then wrote down my thoughts.
And then did nothing with them for three and a half months.
The other day I rediscovered that draft and thought, hey, I don’t remember anything I wrote back then, I should redo the experiment and see if my evaluations will be consistent. And this time without looking at Mike’s post at all, so the risk of contamination would be even lower.
BUT FIRST I thought I should write down what I admire in paper titles, so I could see whether my titles actually lived up to my ideals. So now we can compare:
- what I say I like in paper titles;
- what I actually titled my papers;
- what I had to say about my titles last October;
- what I have to say about them now;
- and, for some of my papers, what Mike had to say about them.
What I Admire In Paper Titles
Brevity. I first became consciously aware of the value of concise titles when I read Knut Schmidt-Nielsen’s autobiography, The Camel’s Nose, in 2004 or 2005. (Short-short review: most of the book is a narrative about scientific questions and it’s great, the self-congratulatory chapters near the end are much less interesting. Totally worth reading, especially since used copies can be had for next to nothing.) Schmidt-Nielsen said he always preferred short, simple titles. Short titles are usually punchy and hard to misunderstand. And I like titles that people can remember, and a short title is easier to recall than a long one.
Impact. In short, maximum information transfer using the minimum number of words. This is a separate point from sheer brevity; a paper can have a short title that doesn’t actually tell you very much. But brevity helps, because it’s difficult to compose a long title that really hits hard. Whatever impact a title might have, it will diluted by every extraneous word.
Full sentences as titles. This is taking the information-transfer aspect of the last admirable quality to its logical extreme, although often at the expense of brevity. I was heavily influenced here by two things that happened while I was at Berkeley. First, I taught for a year in an NSF GK-12 program, where graduate students went out into local elementary, middle, and high schools and taught biology enrichment classes. One thing that was drilled into us during that experience is that we were teaching concepts, which ideally would be expressed as complete sentences. Also about that same time I read James Valentine’s book On the Origin of Phyla. The table of contents of that book is several pages long, because every chapter title, heading, and subheading is a complete sentence. This has a lovely effect: once you’ve read the table of contents of the book or any of its parts, you’ve gotten the TL;DR version of the argument. Sort of like a distributed abstract. I’d like to do that more.
How Did I Do?
Time to see if my actions match my words. Full bibliographic details and PDFs are available on my publications page. I stuck with Mike’s red-blue-green color scheme for the verdicts. My October 2014 and February 2015 thoughts are labeled. For joint papers with Mike, I’ve copied his assessment in as well. Any comments in brackets are my editorializing now, comparing what I said in October to what I said a few days ago before I’d looked back at my old comments or Mike’s.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Sauroposeidon proteles, a new sauropod from the Early Cretaceous of Oklahoma. (11 words)
Oct 2014: Like it. Short, to the point, includes the taxon name.
Feb 2015: Good, gets the job done with a minimum of fuss
Osteology, paleobiology, and relationships of the sauropod dinosaur Sauroposeidon. (9 words)
Oct 2014: This title was inspired by the papers from the early 20th century
Feb 2015: It gets the job done, I suppose. I can’t help but wonder if there might have been a more elegant solution. Part of my unease is that this title is an example of the same attitude that produced the next monstrosity.
Osteological correlates of cervical musculature in Aves and Sauropoda (Dinosauria: Saurischia), with comments on the cervical ribs of Apatosaurus. (19 words)
Oct 2014: Ugh. It gets the job done, I suppose, but it’s waaaay long and just kind of ugly.
Feb 2015: Ugh. Waaay too wordy. I had a (fortunately brief) fascination with long titles, and especially the phrase, “with comments on”. Now I would cut it down to “Bony correlates of neck muscles in birds and sauropod dinosaurs” (10 words)
Vertebral pneumaticity, air sacs, and the physiology of sauropod dinosaurs. (10 words)
Oct 2014: Like it. Would be better made into a sentence, like, “Vertebral pneumaticity is evidence for air sacs in sauropod dinosaurs.”
Feb 2015: Fairly clean. Does what it says on the tin. I’m having a hard time seeing how it could be turned into a sentence and still convey so much of what the paper is about in so few words.
[Heh. As we will see again later on, I was evidently smarter last fall than I am now.]
The evolution of vertebral pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaurs. (8 words)
Oct 2014: Like it. It couldn’t really be any shorter without losing crucial information. Happy to have a decent title on my second-most-cited paper!
Feb 2015: Short, clean, probably my best title ever.
First occurrence of Brachiosaurus (Dinosauria: Sauropoda) from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of Oklahoma. (14 words)
Oct 2014: Yep. once you’ve read the title, you barely need to read the paper. Even better would have been, “A metacarpal of Brachiosaurus from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of Oklahoma.” (12 words)
Feb 2015: Does what it says, but like my other PaleoBios pub, it’s a long title for a short paper. Now I would title it, “First record of the sauropod dinosaur Brachiosaurus from Oklahoma” (9 words)
[my October title was better!]
Postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in sauropods and its implications for mass estimates. (11 words)
Oct 2014: It’s not elegant but it gets the job done. I wanted that paper to be one-stop shopping for sauropod PSP, but of course the real payoff there is the ASP/mass-estimate stuff, so I’m happy to have punched that up in the title.
Feb 2015: Good enough. I like it. It’s a little long–I could reasonably have just titled this, “Postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in sauropods”, but I wanted to draw attention to the implications for mass estimates.
Sauroposeidon: Oklahoma’s native giant (4 words)
Origin of postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in dinosaurs. (7 words)
Oct 2014: About all I would change now would be to add the word “early” at the beginning of the title.
Feb 2015: Great. Could not be shortened further without losing information.
What pneumaticity tells us about ‘prosauropods’, and vice versa. (9 words)
Oct 2014: Love this title. I used it for the abstract of the SVP talk that the paper was derived from, too.
Feb 2015: Kind of a gimmick title, but it’s accurate–the SVP abstract this paper was based on was built around a bullet list. And it’s still nice and short.
Evidence for bird-like air sacs in saurischian dinosaurs. (9 words)
Oct 2014: Along with Wedel (2003b) and Wedel (2006), this has a short (7-9 words apiece) title that tells you what’s in the paper, simply and directly. For once, I’m glad I didn’t turn it into a sentence. I think a declarative statement like “Saurischian dinosaurs had air sacs like those of birds” would have been less informative and come off as advertising. I wanted this paper to do what the title said: run down the evidence for air sacs in saurischians.
Feb 2015: I like it and wouldn’t change it. The “evidence for” part is key – I didn’t want to write a paper primarily about the air sacs themselves. Instead I wanted to lay out the evidence explaining why we think sauropods had air sacs.
Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals. (8 words)
Oct 2014: It’s not horrible but it would be better as a declarative statement like, “Sauropod dinosaurs held their necks and heads elevated like most other tetrapods.” (12 words)
Feb 2015: Good. Reads almost telegraphically brief as it is. Does what it says on the tin.
[October Matt wins again!]
A new sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah, USA. (13 words)
Oct 2014: Two things about this one. First, I wish we’d been able to include the taxon name in the title, as we were allowed to do back in the day for Sauroposeidon. Second, I know some people whinge about us using the CMF in the title and in the paper instead of the Burro Canyon Fm, which is what the CMF is technically called east of the Colorado River. But srsly, how many people search for Burro Canyon Fm versus CMF? All of the relevant faunal comparisons are to be made with the CMF, so I don’t feel the least bit bad about this.
Feb 2015: Fine. About as short as it could be and still be informative.
The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection. Journal of Zoology. (12 words)
Oct 2014: Perfect. The abstract and the paper expand on the title, but if all you read is the title, you know what we found. That’s a worthy goal.
Feb 2015: My first sentence title. Every word does work, so even though this is one of my longer titles, I like it. The length relative to my other titles is not a knock against this one; rather, it emphasizes how well I did at keeping my early titles short and to the point (with a couple of regrettable exceptions as noted above).
The early evolution of postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in sauropodomorph dinosaurs. (10 words)
Oct 2014: Not bad. I wonder if something like, “Widespread vertebral fossae show that pulmonary pneumaticity evolved early in sauropodomorphs” might be better. It’s hard, though, to put so many long, polysyllabic words in a title that doesn’t sound like a train wreck. At a minimum, this paper does what it says on the tin.
Feb 2015: Short and to the point. Another one that couldn’t be any shorter without losing valuable information.
A monument of inefficiency: the presumed course of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in sauropod dinosaurs. (15 words)
Objectively: BAD to OK
Subjectively: GOOD to FREAKIN’ AWESOME
Oct 2014: I readily admit that I could have fashioned a more informative title, but I dearly love this one. It’s derived from a TV commercial for cheeseburgers (true story), and it warms my heart every time I read it.
Feb 2015: This is definitely a gimmick title that is longer than it has to be (it would be a concise 11 words without the unnecessary intro clause) BUT I love it and I’d do it exactly the same if I could do it again. So there!
Why sauropods had long necks; and why giraffes have short necks. (11 words)
Oct 2014: This is one of those ‘draw the reader in’ titles. I like it.
Feb 2015: We both liked the even shorter, “Why giraffes have short necks” but we really felt that a paper about sauropod necks needed sauropod necks in the title. I feel about this one like I feel about my 2007 prosauropod paper: it’s a gimmick title, but it’s short, so no harm done.
Neural spine bifurcation in sauropod dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation: ontogenetic and phylogenetic implications. (14 words)
Oct 2014: Blah. It’s okay, not great. Maybe better as, “No evidence for increasing neural spine bifurcation through ontogeny in diplodocid sauropods of the Morrison Formation”, or something along those lines.
Feb 2015: This one is long but I think the length is necessary. It’s also kinda boring, but it was addressing a fairly dry point. I think any attempt to shorten it or sexy it up would come off as gratuitous.
The effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture and range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. (18 words)
Oct 2014: Probably better along the lines of, “Intervertebral spacing suggests a high neutral posture and broad range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs” or something like that.
Feb 2015: My second-longest title ever! Looking at it now, I think we could have titled it, “Effects of intervertebral cartilage on neck posture and range of motion in sauropod dinosaurs” and gotten it down to 14 words, but the word ‘neutral’ is doing real work in the original so maybe that’s a bust.
Mike: UGH, rubbish.
[October Matt is up by three points at least]
Caudal pneumaticity and pneumatic hiatuses in the sauropod dinosaurs Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus. (12 words)
Oct 2014: Along the same lines as the previous: “Caudal pneumaticity and pneumatic hiatuses show that pulmonary diverticula in the tails of sauropod dinosaurs were pervasive and complex” or something.
Feb 2015: Good. Long only by comparison with some of my earlier titles. Does what it says.
Mike: NOT GOOD ENOUGH
The neck of Barosaurus was not only longer but also wider than those of Diplodocus and other diplodocines. (18 words)
Feb 2015: My second sentence-as-title, and another entry in the run of mostly long titles from 2012 onward. I like how precise it is, despite the length.
A ceratopsian dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Western North America, and the biogeography of Neoceratopsia. (16 words)
Feb 2015: I had no say in this one (by choice, I’m sure Andy et al. would have listened if I had had any suggestions about the title, but I didn’t). If I could rewrite it, I’d probably make it even longer by adding in the word ‘new’ between A and ceratopsian
Haplocanthosaurus (Saurischia: Sauropoda) from the lower Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic) near Snowmass, Colorado. (13 words)
Feb 2015: Feels a lot longer than its 13 words, mostly because so many of the words are polysyllabic. Normally I like pulling the words in parentheses out, but in this case I can’t see that doing that would actually improve the title. Sometimes descriptive papers need plain titles. It’s okay.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
First, Mike graded harder than I did. In fact, I only rated one of my titles as BAD, which seems a bit feeble. I think we were using different criteria. If a title was boring but serviceable, I gave it an OK, whereas Mike tended to flag any suboptimal title as RUBBISH. But I didn’t remember that about his post, and I deliberately avoided looking at it until I’d made my evaluations.
Second, except for the two PaleoBios papers, all of the titles from the first half of my career (2000-2007) are 12 words or fewer, including a substantial bundle from before I’d read either The Camel’s Nose or Strunk & White. I’m sure that being a Cifelli student and then a Padian student had something to do with that; Rich and Kevin made me into the word choice and grammar pedant that I am today (my rhetorical excrescences on this site are my fault, not theirs).
Third, much to my surprise and consternation, my titles have gotten longer over time, not shorter. Partly that’s because my little corner of the science ecosystem is getting increasingly subdivided, so it’s hard for me to write a paper now with a title as broad as, “The evolution of vertebral pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaurs.” (Possibly a prod to keep seeking out new, more open horizons?) And I suppose there is some tension between brevity, informativeness, and precision. For example, saying in the title of a descriptive paper than a specimen is “from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of [Location], [State or Country]” adds 11 words, but the title really does need those words. That could be a segue into a whole other discussion about descriptive versus analytical work, but that will be a topic for another time.
Ultimately, this has been a fun exercise and it’s made me more aware of how I title may papers. This is useful because I have some manuscripts in the works that deal with really detailed anatomy, and I need to figure out how to give them titles that are precise and informative but still punchy. It’s not easy.
Parting thought: after I posted the slides from my photography and illustration talk, Mike and I talked about posting some of our figures and dissecting them to see how they could be improved (it’s axiomatic that almost all figures could be improved in one way or another). We should really get started on that.
November 21, 2014
…is not actually about scholarly publication. It’s Steve Albini’s keynote address at Melbourne’s Face the Music conference. It’s about the music industry, and how the internet transformed it from a restrictive, top-down oligarchy that mostly benefited middlemen into a more open, level, vibrant ecosystem where artists can get worldwide exposure for free, and yet are often compensated better than they were under the old system. Go read it, and then think about this:
Once the music world met the internet, the problem of getting information from musicians (authors) to listeners (readers) didn’t require any central planning to solve. What little building needed to happen was taken care of by people who were just happy to let the internet work the way it was designed to, and the way it works the most naturally: it makes sharing information almost effortless. Publishers (record labels) still exist, because they offer certain conveniences, but few people are under the delusion that they are necessary.
Over here in academia, we’ve already spent more than a decade wringing our hands over how to manage the shift from a barrier-based publishing world to one based on OA. We’ve put so much time and effort and thought into the problem of how to “save” or “transform” scholarly publishing. Why do we do that? Why not just walk away? Publishing is a button, and anything that we do to lend it any more importance–anything we feed it, in terms of time, effort, energy, or regard–is wasted. Wasted because we deliberately ignore the new reality in favor of propping up a system that performed a job that no-one needs done anymore. I keep wondering when the hell we’re all going to wake up, and start sharing our work the way that musicians and listeners share digital music.
And yet even out here on the crazy-eyed, axe-wielding fringe of the OA movement, we are still conservative. Zen Faulkes published a paper on his blog, and he did it 26 months ago, which is a near eternity in the Shiny Digital Future (it’s 13.4% of the lifespan to date of Google). Mike and I have admired that move, and talk about it, but we haven’t done it. Why not? We could even solicit peer reviews from people we know to be tough but fair reviewers. We all do unpaid editorial and review work for publishers, why not for each other directly? It’s like we’re thinking, “Okay, okay, I’ll review this paper, but only if there’s a publisher somewhere that will benefit from my unpaid labor!”
I suppose that for us, one answer is that PeerJ has given us other options that are just as easy as blogging, like posting preprints. So I am a bit torn: I like PeerJ, I support it, I have several papers in the pipeline that I’m planning on sending there. It offers certain conveniences, like sticking DOIs on everything for us, and tracking all of our metrics. But do we need PeerJ? I wonder if it is just the methadone that will help ease us out of our sad addiction to publishers.
Bonus observation: don’t just translate Albini’s thoughts on music to scholarly publishing, also try doing the reverse. It becomes pretty clear that the central theme of The Scholarly Kitchen is, “How will poor, helpless music listeners survive without all the middlemen to tell them what to listen to? They’ll be so lost.” Keep polishing that brass, guys, and thanks for the patronization!
The photos are of the dodo skeleton in the Yorkshire Museum, which I saw at SVPCA back in September. If you’re a dodo-phile like me, you should consider supporting Leon Claessens’s, Kenneth Rijsdijk’s, and Hanneke Meijer’s quest to better understand the skull and feeding mechanics of dodos. Their crowdfunding campaign runs through the end of the year–please go check it out.
November 10, 2014
When Susie Maidment presented her in-progress research at SVP in Berlin last week, someone came in late, missed her “no tweeting, please” request, and posted a screenshot of the new work (since deleted).
On the back of that, Susie started an interesting thread in which it became apparent that people have very different assumptions. She, and Marc Jones, and others, were assuming that if you don’t tell people not to tweet, then they’ll know not to. Meanwhile, I, and Björn Brembs, and others were assuming the opposite: unless someone says not to tweet, you’re good to go.
Obviously this state of affairs is a recipe for disaster. We’re all going to find ourselves giving presentations where we assume the audience will be doing one thing, but at least some audience members are assuming the other.
So the first thing to say is that we should be explicit about our expectations. My talk at SVPCA this year contained this slide:
I’m going to get into the habit of including something like this every time. Similarly, people who don’t want material from their talks appearing on Twitter should say so.
The second thing is that conferences should state their default policies (always of course allowing individual authors to override them). Someone at, say, SVP, should know from the registration material either that it’s OK to tweet unless told not to, or that it’s not OK to tweet unless told that it is. I think it’s reasonable that different conferences would lean in different directions on this.
The third thing is in the absence of other guidance, it’s better not to tweet. I feel a bit uncomfortable about this because it goes against my pro-open tendencies, but it’s a matter of failing safe. If I want you to tweet my talk but but I forget to say so and there is no conference-wide policy (or the conference policy is No Tweeting), then you won’t tweet it, and that is a missed opportunity –but I’ll live. But if Susie doesn’t want you to tweet but forgets to say so, and you do, then she will be unhappier. (For example, in the present case, Susie is hoping for a media splash, which could be diluted if knowledge of the new finding is already leaking out.
- Individual presenters should say what they want.
- The conference should provide a default policy
- If the absence of both, fail safe by not tweeting.
That’s what I think, anyway. What do you think?
October 21, 2014
In light of yesterday’s tutorial on choosing titles, here are the titles of all my own published papers (including co-authored ones), in chronological order, with my own sense of whether I’m happy with them now I look back. All the full references are on my publications page (along with the PDFs). I’ll mark the good ones in green, the bad ones in red and the merely OK in blue.
The Phylogenetic Taxonomy of Diplodocoidea (Dinosauria: Sauropoda).
OK, I suppose. It does at least clearly state what the paper is about. I’ll give myself a pass on this since it was my very first paper.
Dinosaur diversity analysed by clade, age, place and year of description.
NOT BAD, since the paper was basically a list of many, many results that could hardly have been summarised in the title. I give myself some points for listing the ways I analysed the data, rather than just saying “An analysis of dinosaur diversity” or something equally uninformative.
Phylogenetic definitions in the pre-PhyloCode era; implications for naming clades under the PhyloCode.
NOT BAD again, I suppose, since it was a discussion paper that couldn’t be summarised in a short title. Could I have said what the alluded-to implications are? I think probably not, in a reasonably concise title.
An unusual new neosauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Beds Group of East Sussex, England.
RUBBISH, since it doesn’t name the new dinosaur (which was of course Xenoposeidon). I was young and stupid back then, and just followed convention. In mitigation, it does at least say when and where the specimen is from.
Case 3472: Cetiosaurus Owen, 1841 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda): proposed conservation of usage by designation of Cetiosaurus oxoniensis Phillips, 1871 as the type species.
DOUBLE-PLUS UGLY. But I am going to blame the journal on this one — they have a very firmly defined format for petition titles.
Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals.
RUBBISH. What was I thinking, and why did my SV-POW!sketeer co-authors let me choose such an uninformative title? We should of course have gone with a title that says what posture we inferred. The associated blog-post had a much better title: Sauropods held their necks erect … just like rabbits.
A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914).
ADEQUATE, since the title strongly implies the conclusion (generic separation) even if doesn’t quite come out and say it.
Electronic publication of nomenclatural acts is inevitable, and will be accepted by the taxonomic community with or without the endorsement of the Code.
BRILLIANT. The best title in my CV. You hardly even need to read the paper once you’ve read the title. The only downside: it’s 12 characters too long to tweet.
Sharing: public databases combat mistrust and secrecy.
GOOD, but I can’t take the credit for that (A) because I was third author behind Andy Farke and Matt, and (B) because the journal chose the title.
The Open Dinosaur Project.
OK, but we should have done better. Something like “The Open Dinosaur Project recruits volunteer effort to analyse dinosaur evolution”. Or, if we were being honest (and prescient), “The Open Dinosaur Project will lie embarrassingly moribund for more than two years”.
Sauropod dinosaur research: a historical review.
OK, since it does say what the paper is. But this title is not as good as that of the talk it was based on, “The evolution of sauropod dinosaurs from 1841 to 2008″. (I notice that Mark Witton nicked my title for his talk at TetZooCon.)
Running a question-and-answer website for science education: first hand experiences.
UNOBJECTIONABLE, but not my choice anyway — lead author Dave Hone presumably picked it. Could have done better by stating what at least one of those experiences was.
A new sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah, USA.
RUBBISH. At least this time it wasn’t entirely my fault. When we submitted this to Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, it was called “Brontomerus mcintoshi, a new sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah, USA”, but the journal made us take the taxon name out of the title. Why? Why why WHY?
The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection.
Why sauropods had long necks; and why giraffes have short necks.
EXCELLENT. Short, appealing and (hopefully) funny. When I give talks based on this paper, I use the even better short version, just “Why giraffes have short necks”. But that seemed a bit too cute for an academic setting.
Neural spine bifurcation in sauropod dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation: ontogenetic and phylogenetic implications.
WEAK. We should have stated the conclusion: a title like “Neural spine bifurcation in sauropods of the Morrison Formation is not an ontogenetic feature, but is phylogenetically significant” would have been better.
The neck of Barosaurus was not only longer but also wider than those of Diplodocus and other diplodocines.
GOOD. Not particularly exciting, but explicit.
Caudal pneumaticity and pneumatic hiatuses in the sauropod dinosaurs Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus.
NOT GOOD ENOUGH. We should have stated the main finding: “Caudal pneumaticity and pneumatic hiatuses reveal cryptic diverticula in the sauropod dinosaurs Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus“.
The effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture and range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs.
UGH, rubbish. What the heck was I thinking? I should have written this post a couple of years ago, and used it to make me choose a much better title. As it is, it just leaves the reader assuming intervertebral cartilage probably has some effect, but they have no idea what.
I make that six good titles, seven bad ones and six indifferent. Awarding two points per good title and one per adequate title, I give myself 18 points out of a possible 38 — slightly less than half, at 47%. More worryingly, there’s no apparent trend towards choosing better titles.
Must do better.
October 20, 2014
Over on his (excellent) Better Posters blog, Zen Faulks has been critiquing a poster on affective feedback. The full title of the poster is “Studying the effects of affective feedback in embodied tutors”. Among other points, Zen makes this one:
As a browser, I often want a take home message. This isn’t helped by the weak title, which represents most of your communication effort. “Studying the effect of” in a title is bland and uninformative. Every academic thing is “studying the effect of” something. A question would be better, and an answer would be better still.
I think that’s right on target. Unfortunately, we in palaeo are mired in an ancient tradition of uninformative paper titles. We look at Cope’s three indistinguishable 1877 titles “On a dinosaurian from the Trias of Utah”, “On a gigantic saurian from the Dakota epoch of Colorado” and “On Amphicoelias, a genus of saurian from the Dakota epoch of Colorado” and assume that’s the way to do it. Or his 1878 titles, “On the Vertebrata of the Dakota Epoch of Colorado” and “On the saurians recently discovered in the Dakota Beds of Colorado”.
And so we end up with uninformative titles like (to pick one at random from the most recent JVP) “Tilefish (Teleostei, Malacanthidae) remains from the Miocene Calvert Formation, Maryland and Virginia: taxonomical and paleoecological remarks” (what remarks? What did you discover about tilefish?) Or “Latest evidence of Palaeoamasia (Mammalia, Embrithopoda) in Turkish Anatolia” (what evidence? What does it tell you?) Or “On the skull of Radinskya (Mammalia) and its phylogenetic position” (what is its phylogenetic position?). [Apologies to the authors of these papers, whose titles are no worse than many, many others. I needed examples, and they drew the short straws.]
It’s in tribute to uninformative titles such as these that I stupidly titled my dissertation “Aspects of the history, anatomy, taxonomy and palaeobiology of sauropod dinosaurs”.
So what makes a good title? Here’s a rather random list of thoughts. Feel free to chip in with others that I missed.
Give the name of the taxon under study. Stupidly, lots of journals have a rule that says a paper naming a new taxon can’t use the new name in the title. I can’t begin to imagine why anyone thinks it’s a good idea to make sure that the title is missing the Single. Most. Important word, but there it is.
Avoid vague words like “study”, “aspects”, “observations”, etc. Instead, choose a title that tells us what you studied, what aspects were of interest, and what you observed.
Avoid weak puns. Don Henderson’s paper on sauropod step sequences got away with being called “Burly Gaits” because it was a clever double pun; but only just, as it had nothing to do with the Pearly Gates. It’s best not to attempt this unless you have something really smart.
In fact avoid all jocular references to well-known phrases, because they’re lame. Really, how does the introductory phrase improve titles like “Not just a pretty face: anatomical peculiarities in the postcranium of Rebbachisaurids (Sauropoda: Diplodocoidea)” or “The eyes have it: the sizes, shapes, and orientations of theropod orbits as indicators of skull strength and bite force”?
Don’t use a nounal phrase as the title. This is a amazingly common — titles like “The nature of Mauisaurus haasti Hector, 1874 (Reptilia: Plesiosauria)”. It doesn’t tell us what the paper is going to say, only what it’s going to say it about. Much better to choose a title that tells us what the nature of Mauisaurus is. (We’re guilty, too: the only paper co-written by all three of us SV-POW!er Rangers is called “Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals”. Yes, sauropods have a head and neck posture, and yes we inferred it from extant animals. But we didn’t say what it actually is.)
Ask a question. For example, Roland T. Bird’s 1944 paper on the terrestrial/aquatic sauropod controversy was called “Did Brontosaurus ever walk on land?” More recently, Bonnan and Senter asked in 2007, “Were the basal sauropodomorph dinosaurs Plateosaurus and Massospondylus habitual quadrupeds?” A question draws people in.
Better yet, make a statement. Summarise the paper’s principal finding, if you can do it in a single short sentence. Bonaparte wrote an abstract in 1999 entitled “Rebbachisaurus tessonei Calvo and Salgado 1996 is not Rebbachisaurus Lavocat 1954.” Mitchell et al. (2009) called their paper “Sexual selection is not the origin of long necks in giraffes”. (I guess we had that in mind when we named our 2011 paper.)
The underlying principle here is this: for many people, the title will be the only part of your paper that they ever read. For many more, it will be the part that draws them in to read more — something they won’t do if the title doesn’t draw them in.
So, for the benefit for the first group, you want to write a title that will stand as a not-completely-inadequate surrogate for the whole paper. And you also want that title to provoke the interest of the second group.
September 9, 2014
I am just back from SVPCA, where I saw fifty 20-minute talks in three days. (I try to avoid missing any talks at all if I can avoid it, and this year I did.) As always, there was lots of fascinating stuff, and much of it not about the topics that I would necessarily have expected to enjoy. Examples include Tom Fletcher’s talk on the evolution of hydrodynamically efficient skin textures in fish, Lionel Hautier’s on the homologies of sloth teeth and Liz Martin’s on the skeletal-mass:total-mass ratio in birds.
But the brutal truth is that some of the talks were much less engaging. As the fish, sloths and birds prove, it’s not necessarily the fault of the taxa being studied — other factors are more important.
In a moment of frustration during one of the less appealing talks, I made a list of four basic points that contribute to a talk being compelling.
Here they are.
1. Love your taxon. It’s one of the main generators of enthusiasm, and nothing is more engaging than enthusiasm. I’ve seen dinosaur talks given by people who clearly don’t much care for dinosaurs. It comes through and destroys the appeal of the talk. Conversely, at TetZooCon a couple of months ago, one of the highlights was Helen Meredith’s talk “What have amphibians ever done for us?” about a group that doesn’t honestly excite me much — but the amphibians excited her so much that I caught that excitement. Ditto for Lionel Hautier’s sloth talk at SVPCA.
What to do if you don’t love your taxon? Give a talk about something you do love. If you don’t love anything, why are you in this field? Really, without enthusiasm, you’re lost. If you don’t care, neither will we. So care.
2. Show us pictures of your taxon. If you’re a particle physicist, pretty much the only thing you can show in your talk is graphs. But one of the great things about vertebrate palaeontology and comparative anatomy is that the field is just bursting with beautiful, photogenic objects. So for heaven’s sake show them to us! Yes yes, you may legitimately have to show graphs later on when you get to the hardcore stuff, but your best bet to get us interested in (say) voles is to show us that they’re interesting. In palaeo, that means we need to see both bones and life restorations.
3. Engage with the audience. That means you need to know your material well enough that you don’t need to be reading notes. Yes, notes are a help if you’re nervous, but they absolutely kill any sense of connection between speaker and listeners. Do whatever it takes to avoid a monotone.
There are two ways to do this. The simplest is to learn your talk. Write it out longhand if you find that helpful, but then rehearse it enough times that you don’t need the script — so that seeing each slide is enough to send you, Pavlov-like, into the relevant bit of spiel. Then you can be making eye contact and waving your hands around, just like you would if you were explaining something in a pub.
The second way to do it is even better. Don’t just learn your talk but learn your subject. If you get sufficiently familiar with (say) sauropod necks, then you can hardly watch one of your slides come up and not start talking about what it shows you. It’s better to fly blind (even if you risk a crash) than to crawl. (And of course you’re not really blind: preparing the slides burns the narrative of the talk into your mind, so that you know where you’re going even without really trying.)
4. Tell a story. People are wired to love stories. It’s not coincidence that Aesop and Jesus both did their moral teaching principally through stories; nor that Dawkins’ fine explanations of evolution are expressed in pretty much story form. People who are listening to a story want to know what happens next.
“I did a principle component analysis” is not a story. “How separate radiations of anole lizards evolved to fill the same set of ecological niches” is a story. If a principle component analysis is the way you reach the punchline of that story, fine: the point is, you’ve made us care about the PCA before we get to it, because we want to find out what happens to the cute little lizards (which you showed us lots of nice pictures of early on).
Here is the key point that underlies all this, and which I fear students are not always told as clearly as they should be: talks are not papers. A paper by convention is dry. It’s mostly words, equations and (often) graphs. A talk can’t afford to be dry, and by nature is about images and speech. It’s a much more human thing.
Here’s one reason why. We only read papers that we’re already interested in. I’ll read the sauropod papers in JVP, but skip over the fish, sloth and bird papers. That’s because I am already invested in sauropods, and because I know enough about them to make sense of a dry, technical paper. But when we go to conferences, we hear talks on lots of things that we’re not pre-interested in. A good speaker makes us interested. She has to. In short, a paper is directed at a specialist audience, while a talk has to win an audience from among non-specialists.
To be even shorter: talks should be fun to watch and listen to!
[See also: Tutorial 16: giving good talks (in four parts)]
I was reading a rant on another site about how pretentious it is for intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals to tell the world about their “media diets” and it got me thinking–well, angsting–about my scientific media diet.
And then almost immediately I thought, “Hey, what am I afraid of? I should just go tell the truth about this.”
And that truth is this: I can’t tell you what forms of scientific media I keep up with, because I don’t feel like I am actually keeping up with any of them.
Papers – I have no systematic method of finding them. I don’t subscribe to any notifications or table of contents updates. Nor, to be honest, am I in the habit of regularly combing the tables of contents of any journals.
Blogs – I don’t follow any in a timely fashion, although I do check in with TetZoo, Laelaps, and a couple of others every month or two. Way back when we started SV-POW!, we made a command decision not to list any sites other than our own on the sideboard. At the time, that was because we didn’t want to have any hurt feelings or drama over who we did and didn’t include. But over time, a strong secondary motive to keep things this way is that we’re not forced to keep up with the whole paleo blogosphere, which long ago outstripped my capacity to even competently survey. Fortunately, those overachievers at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs have a pretty exhaustive-looking set of links on their sidebar, so globally speaking, someone is already on that.
The contraction in my blog reading is a fairly recent thing. When TetZoo was on ScienceBlogs, I was over there all the time, and there were probably half a dozen SciBlogs that I followed pretty regularly and another dozen or so that I at least kept tabs on. But ScienceBlogs burned down the community I was interested in, and the Scientific American Blog Network is sufficiently ugly (in the UI sense) and reader-unfriendly to not be worth my dealing with it. So I am currently between blog networks–or maybe past my last one.
Social Media – I’m not on Twitter, and I tend to only log into Facebook when I get an interesting notice in my Gmail “Social” folder. Sometimes I’m not on FB for a week or two at a time. So I miss a lot of stuff that goes down there, including notices about new papers. I could probably fix that if I just followed Andy Farke more religiously.
What ends up happening – I mainly find papers relevant to specific projects as I execute those projects; each new project is a new front in my n-dimensional invasion of the literature. My concern is that in doing this, I tend to find the papers that I’m looking for, whereas the papers that have had the most transformative effect on me are the ones I was not looking for at the time.
Beyond that, I find out about new papers because the authors take it on themselves to include me when they email the PDF out to a list of potentially interested colleagues (and many thanks to all of you who are doing that!), or Mike, Darren, or Andy send it to me, or it turns up in the updates to my Google Scholar profile.
So far, this combination of ad hoc and half-assed methods seems to be working, although it does mean that I have unfairly outsourced much of my paper discovery to other people without doing much for them in return. When I say that it’s working, I mean that I don’t get review comments pointing out that I have missed important recent papers. I do get review comments saying that I need to cite more stuff,* but these tend to be papers that I already know of and maybe even cited already, just not in the right ways to satisfy the reviewers.**
* There is a sort of an arrow-of-inevitability thing here, in that reviewers almost always ask you to cite more papers rather than fewer. Only once ever have I been asked to cite fewer sources, and that is when I had submitted my dinosaur nerve paper (Wedel 2012) to a certain nameless anatomy journal that ended up not publishing it. One of the reviewers said that I had cited several textbooks and popular science books and that was poor practice, I should have cited primary literature. Apparently this subgenius did not realize that I was citing all of those popular sources as examples of publications that held up the recurrent laryngeal nerve of giraffes as evidence for evolution, which was part of the point that I was making: giraffe RLNs are overrated.
** My usual sin is that I mentally categorize papers in one or two holes and forget that a given paper also mentioned C and D in addition to saying a lot about A and B. It’s something that vexes me about some of my own papers. I put so much stuff into the second Sauroposeidon paper (Wedel et al. 2000b) that some it has never been cited–although that paper has been cited plenty, it often does not come up in discussions where some of the data presented therein is relevant, I think because there’s just too much stuff in that paper for anyone (who cares about that paper less than I do) to hold in their heads. But that’s a problem to be explored in another post.
The arborization of science
Part of the problem with keeping up with the literature is just that there is so much more of it than there was even a few years ago. When I first got interested in sauropod pneumaticity back in the late 90s, you were pretty much up to speed if you’d read about half a dozen papers:
- Seeley (1870), who first described pneumaticity in sauropods as such, even if he didn’t know what sauropods were yet;
- Longman (1933), who first realized that sauropod vertebrae could be sorted into two bins based on their internal structures, which are crudely I-beam-shaped or honeycombed;
- Janensch (1947), who wrote the first ever paper that was primarily about pneumaticity in dinosaurs;
- Britt (1993), who first CTed dinosaur bones looking for pneumaticity, independently rediscovered Longman’s two categories, calling them ‘camerate’ and ‘camellate’ respectively, and generally put the whole investigation of dinosaur pneumaticity on its modern footing;
- Witmer (1997), who provided what I think is the first compelling explanation of how and why skeletal pneumaticity works the way it does, using a vast amount of evidence culled from both living and fossil systems;
- Wilson (1999), who IIRC was the first to seriously discuss the interplay of pneumaticity and biomechanics in determining the form of sauropod vertebrae.
Yeah, there you go: up until the year 2000, you could learn pretty much everything important that had been published on pneumaticity in dinosaurs by reading five papers and one dissertation. “Dinosaur pneumaticity” wasn’t a field yet. It feels like it is becoming one now. To get up to speed today, in addition to the above you’d need to read big swaths of the work of Roger Benson, Richard Butler, Leon Claessens, Pat O’Connor (including a growing body of work by his students), Emma Schachner (not on pneumaticity per se, but too closely related [and too awesome] to ignore), Daniela Schwarz, and Jeff Wilson (and his students), plus important singleton papers like Woodward and Lehman (2009), Cerda et al. (2012), Yates et al. (2012), and Fanti et al. (2013). Not to mention my own work, and some of Mike’s and Darren’s. And Andy Farke and the rest of Witmer, if you’re into cranial pneumaticity. And still others if you care about pneumaticity in pterosaurs, which you should if you want to understand how–and, crucially, when–the anatomical underpinnings of ornithodiran pneumaticity evolved. Plus undoubtedly some I’ve forgotten–apologies in advance to the slighted, please prod me in the comments.
You see? If I actually listed all of the relevant papers by just the authors I named above, it would probably run to 50 or so papers. So someone trying to really come to grips with dinosaur pneumaticity now faces a task roughly equal to the one I faced in 1996 when I was first trying to grokk sauropods. This is dim memory combined with lots of guesswork and handwaving, but I probably had to read about 50 papers on sauropods before I felt like I really knew the group. Heck, I read about a dozen on blood pressure alone.
(Note to self: this is probably a good argument for writing a review paper on dinosaur pneumaticity, possibly in collaboration with some of the folks mentioned above–sort of a McIntosh  for the next generation.)
When I wrote the first draft of this post, I was casting about for a word to describe what is going on in science, and the first one that came to mind is “fragmentation”. But that’s not the right word–science isn’t getting more fragmented. If anything, it’s getting more interconnected. What it’s really doing is arborizing–branching fractally, like the blood vessels in the image at the top of this post. I think it’s pointless to opine about whether this is a good or bad thing. Like the existence of black holes and fuzzy ornithischians, it’s just a fact now, and we’d better get on with trying to make progress in this new reality.
How do I feel about all this, now that my little capillary of science has grown into an arteriole and threatens to become a full-blown artery? It is simultaneously exhilarating and worrying. Exhilarating because lots of people are discovering lots of cool stuff about my favorite system, and I have a lot more people to bounce ideas around with than I did when I started. Worrying because I feel like I am gradually losing my ability to keep tabs on the whole thing. Sound familiar?
Conclusion: Help a brother out
Having admitted all of this, it seems imperative that I get my act together and establish some kind of systematic new-paper-discovery method, beyond just sponging off my friends and hoping that they’ll continue to deliver everything I need. But it seems inevitable that I am either going to have to be come more selective about what I consume–which sounds both stupid and depressing–or lose all of my time just trying to keep up with things.
Hi, I’m Matt. I just arrived here in Toomuchnewscienceistan. How do you find your way around?
- Britt, B. B. 1993. Pneumatic postcranial bones in dinosaurs and other archosaurs. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Calgary, Calgary, 383 pp.
- Cerda, I.A., Salgado, L., and Powell, J.E. 2012. Extreme postcranial pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaurs from South America. Palaeontologische Zeitschrift. DOI 10.1007/s12542-012-0140-6
- Fanti, F., Cau, A., Hassine, M., and Contessi, M. 2013. A new sauropod dinosaur from the Early Cretaceous of Tunisia with extreme avian-like pneumatization. Nature Communications 4:2080. doi:10.1038/ncomms3080
- Longman, H. A. 1933. A new dinosaur from the Queensland Creta- ceous. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 10:131–144.
- McIntosh, John S. 1990. Sauropoda. pp. 345-401 in: D. B. Weishampel, P. Dodson and H. Osmólska (eds.), The Dinosauria. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.
- Seeley, H. G. 1870. On Ornithopsis, a gigantic animal of the pterodactyle kind from the Wealden. Annals and Magazine of Natural History, Series 4, 5 279-283.
- Wilson, J. A. 1999. A nomenclature for vertebral laminae in sauropods and other saurischian dinosaurs. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 19, 639-653.
- Witmer, L.M. 1997. The evolution of the antorbital cavity of archosaurs: a study in soft-tissue reconstruction in the fossil record with an analysis of the function of pneumaticity. Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Memoir 3:1-73.
- Woodward, H.N., and Lehman, T.M. 2009. Bone histology and microanatomy of Alamosaurus sanjuanensis (Sauropoda: Titanosauria) from the Maastrichtian of Big Bend National Park, Texas. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3):807-821.
- Yates, A.M., Wedel, M.J., and Bonnan, M.F. 2012. The early evolution of postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in sauropodomorph dinosaurs. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 57(1):85-100. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4202/app.2010.0075