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)

Feb 2015: Nice and short. Not terribly informative, but since this was a narrative about the discovery and description of Sauroposeidon aimed mostly at an Oklahoma audience, it’s not obvious how it could be improved.
[Note sure how missed this one last October, but I did.]

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.

Mike: WEAK

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.


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.

Mike: GOOD

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.

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.


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”.

The cover of the printed version of my dissertation. Proof that I can pick a useless title just as well as E. D. Cope.

The cover of the printed version of my dissertation. Proof that I can pick a useless title just as well as E. D. Cope.

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.

UPDATE: Mike and Matt review their own paper titles here and here, respectively.



Internal Iliac Arteries - MJW 2011

Here’s a thing I put together to help my students understand the many branches of the internal iliac artery in humans. In the image above, we’re looking in superomedial view into the right half of the sacrum and pelvis. Bones are white, ligaments blue, the piriformis muscle sort of meat-colored, and arteries red (for a tour of the pelvis identifying all of this stuff, see my pelvic foramina slideshow). At the top is a big inverted Y-shape: the common iliac arteries branching from the abdominal aorta, which continues on, much reduced, as the median sacral artery. The right common iliac artery is shown bifurcating into the external iliac artery, which continues on out of the pelvis to become the femoral artery, and the internal iliac artery, source of much fear and doubt.

The first thing to understand is that any particular branching pattern of the internal iliac arteries, whether in an anatomical altas, a lecture, revealed in a dream, or even in your own body, will probably have no bearing whatsoever on the branching pattern in the next person you encounter, alive or dead. Furthermore, the variation between right and left in a single person can be as great as that among different people. The branches to pelvic viscera are particularly fiendish; they sometimes travel far into the pelvis as a common trunk and then “starburst” near their target organs, making identification almost impossible. Do not waste your time trying to memorize any particular branching sequence. Instead, concentrate on matching the arteries to their targets; you will discover the identities of the branches by seeing where they are going, not the order in which they branch.

There are typically 10 named branches of the internal iliac artery. Authorities quibble on the details, as we’ll see in a moment, but if you know these 10, you’ll be fine for almost any conceivable purpose. A simple scheme of my own devising for remembering them is 2-4-4:

TWO to the back body wall:

  1. iliolumbar A—may arise from external or common iliac AA; sometimes double
  2. lateral sacral A—note branches to anterior sacral foramina and anastomoses with median sacral A

FOUR leaving the pelvis entirely:

  1. obturator A—often arises from the external iliac A instead, exits pelvis through obturator canal
  2. superior gluteal A—exits pelvis through suprapiriform foramen
  3. inferior gluteal A—exits pelvis through infrapiriform foramen, with internal pudendal A
  4. internal pudendal A—exits pelvis through infrapiriform foramen, with inferior gluteal A

FOUR to pelvic viscera:

  1. superior vesical A—usually the dominant artery of the anterior trunk, this is the patent part of the obliterated umbilical artery, which survives as the medial umbilical ligament
  2. inferior vesical A (males) / vaginal A (females)—may branch off uterine A (females) or superior vesical A (both)
  3. uterine A (females)—major artery to uterus, approaches laterally within the broad ligament
    A to ductus deferens (males)—extremely small and difficult to trace
  4. middle rectal A—usually the most inferior branch of the entire internal iliac tree (at least inside the pelvis)

My way to explain those last four is to extend my index finger and say, “Everybody has to pee, so up front we have superior vesical.” Then extend my pinky and say, “And everyone has to poop, so in back we have middle rectal.” Then extend digits three and four and explain that the identity of the middle two arteries varies between the sexes (but that the inferior vesical artery of males and the vaginal artery of females are basically the same vessel).

There is a LOT of variation in the descriptions of the internal iliac artery branches among different sources — almost as much variation as there is in the arteries themselves.

  • ​The Thieme Atlas of Anatomy, 2nd Ed (Gilroy et al. 2009), Table 19.1 on p. 254, includes the inferior vesical artery for both sexes. The artery to ductus deferens is listed as a branch of the superior vesical artery, and the uterine and vaginal arteries are listed separately, bringing the total for females to 11.
  • Clinically Oriented Anatomy, 7th Ed (Moore et al. 2013), Table 3.4 and pp. 350-355, lists the 10 branches I went through above. Moore et al. explicitly say that the vaginal artery is the female homolog of the inferior vesical artery (p. 351).
  • Gray’s Anatomy, 40th Ed (Standring et al. 2008), pp. 1085-1089, splits the difference. The artery to ductus deferens is not listed; instead, the ductus deferens is said to be supplied by the inferior vesical A (in contrast to Thieme, which has it is supplied by the superior vesical A). Both the vaginal and inferior vesical arteries are listed, but the vaginal artery is said to frequently replace the inferior vesical artery.

The upshot is that pretty much all of these sources agree on how the blood is getting distributed, there are just some minor differences over what we call certain vessels. I have never personally seen a dissection detailed enough to allow an interior vesical artery to be recognized separately from the vaginal artery — the vagina lies so close behind the bladder that whatever you call the artery that runs lateral to them, it could easily be supplying both structures, and probably does. As far as I’m concerned, the inferior vesical artery in males and the vaginal artery in females are the same artery, in that they both supply the inferior portion of the bladder. I think it’s just a historical hiccup that we call them by different names, possibly perpetrated by smelly, lonely, vagina-obsessed men of centuries past.

A final note, added in revision: some sources refer to two trunks or divisions of the internal iliac artery: a posterior trunk that gives rise to the iliolumbar, lateral sacral, and superior gluteal arteries, and an anterior trunk that gives rise to everything else. If that’s what your professor tells you, smile and nod and keep your heretical thoughts to yourself. Personally, I regard the notion of trunks of the internal iliac artery alongside phlogiston, luminiferous aether, and snorkeling sauropods, as romantic nonsense at best. I have seen an obturator artery arise from a superior gluteal artery and a pudendal artery arise from a superior vesical artery. In a world where variants like those can and do turn up frequently, the stability and reason implied by regular trunks is illusory.


  • Gilroy, A., MacPherson, B., and Ross, L. (eds.) 2009. Atlas of Anatomy, 2nd ed. Thieme, Stuttgart.
  • Moore, K.L., Dalley, A.F., and Agur, A.M. 2013. Clincially Oriented Anatomy, 7th ed. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia.
  • Standring, S. 2008. Gray’s Anatomy, 40 ed. Churchill Livingstone, London.

I got in a conversation recently with a friend who is about to have his first paper published. It’s been through review and is now accepted at a well-respected old-school journal owned by a legacy publisher. It’s not an open-access journal, and he asked my advice on how he could make the paper open access.

We had a fruitful discussion, and we agreed that I’d write up the conclusions for this blog.

First, you can pay the publisher to open-access your paper. That’s a legitimate option at “hybrid OA” journals, which by this point is pretty much all paywalled journals. But even when the journal invites it, that’s not always possible. In this case, my friend has no institutional funds available, and really isn’t in a position to bung the publisher $3000 out of his own pocket.

The second option is to write to the journal saying that you select the OA option, but that since you have no institutional support you have to ask for a waiver. Will this work? It’s impossible to tell unless you try it. Some journals might have an absolutely-no-waiver policy; heck, some might have a “we always give waivers but don’t advertise the fact” policy. My guess is that most have no policy at all, but that editors (who are nearly all researchers themselves) will tend to be sympathetic, and support your case. Anyway, it can’t hurt to politely ask.

If that fails, the the third approach is to use the SPARC Author Addendum. Using this legal instrument (which is freely available), you do not transfer copyright to the publisher, as they usually request, but instead give them a non-exclusive right to publish — which of course is all they actually need. That leaves you legally free to post the accepted (peer-reviewed) version of the manuscript elsewhere: in an institutional repository, your own web-site or wherever. (I’ve never used this myself, but I hear it’s widely accepted.)

If the publisher is intransigent enough to reject the SPARC Addendum, the fourth approach is to dedicate your manuscript to the public domain (for example by posting it on arXiv with the CC Public Domain Declaration). Then return the copyright transfer form to the publisher, saying truthfully that there is no copyright to transfer. Publishers are used to dealing with submissions that have no copyright: for example, everything authored by U.S. federal employees is in the public domain. Their copyright forms usually already have a section for declaring public domain.

Finally if somehow all of the above tactics fail — if the journal flatly refuses to give an APC waiver, won’t accept the SPARC addendum, and rejects works that are in the public domain though not written by US Government employees — and if despite their evident hostility to science you still want to stick with the journal that accepted your paper — then you have one final option. You can just go ahead and give them the copyright, but then post the final PDF on your own web-site anyway. Of course, you are not technically allowed to do that, but historically it’s never been a problem. It’s very widely done — especially by old-school professors, because it would never even occur to them that sharing their own work could be a problem.

To be clear, I am not advocating the last of these. The four preceding approaches are better because they are fully in compliance with copyright law. But when dealing with a publisher that is simply determined to prevent your work from being read, then you have to weigh for yourself whether you’re more interested in respecting copyright, or doing what’s right.

This is the situation with several of my own old papers, which in my young and stupid days I signed over to publishers without giving it any thought at all. Having got myself into that situation, it seems to me that making those papers available anyway is the least bad of several bad options. But I would never choose that approach now, since I publish exclusively in open-access venues.


Option zero (not discussed here) is to use an open-access venue to start with: then none of these issues even arise. But failing that:

  1. If you have funds, use them to pay the publisher an APC to make the article open access.
  2. Ask the journal for an APC waiver.
  3. Use the SPARC Author Addendum to retain copyright and give the journal a licence to publish.
  4. Dedicate the manuscript to the public domain and tell the publisher there is no copyright to transfer.
  5. If all else fails, just post the paper publicly anyway.

In his post on Vicki’s new book Broken Bones, Matt told us his twelve-step process for producing stippled illustrations like this one of a crushed skull, which became the cover image of the book:

Skull drawing - F1 - original on white

As soon as I saw that, I found myself thinking that it would look nice with some shading of the bone. Of course the existing stippling is a perfect guide to how dense the shading should be at each point, so I figured there had to be an easy way to do this automatically. There is, and this is what I whipped up in five minutes:


Here’s how I did it.

  1. I loaded Matt’s image into the GIMP, my image editor of choice.
  2. For some reason the crucial next step doesn’t work with greyscale images, so I converted it to RGB (Image → Mode  RGB)
  3. I removed the white background, leaving it transparent (Colours → Colour to Alpha… and click OK on the default colour, white)
  4. I added a new all-white background layer.
  5. I duplicated the skull layer, and named it “shading”
  6. I blurred the shading layer by 50 pixels (Filters → Blur → Gaussian Blur…, set the blur radius to 50 pixels and hit OK.) That gives you the shading you want, but it smudges out past the outline of the skull, hence the last two steps:
  7. I went back to the skull layer, and using the Fuzzy Select Tool (magic wand) selected the contiguous transparent area outside the skull parts.
  8. I went back to the shading layer and cut the selected area, leaving only that shading that’s inside the boundary of the skull.

As always with Gimp tutorials, it takes about ten times as long to explain as to actually do.

When I showed this to Matt, I rather immodestly said I was “super-happy with it”. Matt said he was “super-happy with the idea, but only regular happy with this specific execution”. He felt that the blurring was too strong, and that it should be backed off by 30-40%. So I made a new shading layer in the same way as above, but this time blurring by only 30 pixels. Here’s the resulting image:


It’s quite a subtle difference, but clear if you flip back and forth between the images (which you can most easily do by putting them in adjacent tabs of your browser). Personally, I think I prefer the 50-pixel version, since I think the shading clings rather too closely to the lines in this one, but YMMV.

Since I had both blur layers right there in the image, I thought it might be interesting to see how they look together. Here’s the result:


I’m actually rather fond of this version, but it’s a long way from the crisp, clinical feel of the original.

You can thicken up the shading by duplicating one or both of the shading layers as many times as you wish (or or course thin it out by sliding down the opacity level). Its also easy to make the shading coloured: just use Colours  → Levels, select the individual colour channels, and bring up their bottom levels to taste.

Putting all that together, here’s one I made with very dense, yellowish (bone-coloured) shading. I did it starting with the 50-pixel shading layer, upping the red output level to 200 and the green to 150, then duplicating that layer, and reducing the 30-pixel shading layer to 50% opacity.


You can play for hours with all these sliders, tweaking as you wish, thanks to the magic of layers. It’s well worth investing a bit of time to learn some of the capabilities of a program like GIMP. Matt and I are very far from wizards, but we have at least got a bit past just using it to cut out backgrounds, and it opens up possibilities.

If the internet has any underlying monomyth, or universally shared common ground, or absolute rule, it is this:

People love to see the underdog win.

This rule has a corollary:

When you try to censor someone, they automatically become the underdog.

I say “try to censor” someone, because on the internet that is remarkably difficult to achieve. I’m not going to argue that the attention paid to the range of stories told on the internet is fairly distributed–being published is not the same as being read, and people seem to prefer cat pictures to reading about genocide. But it’s awfully hard to shut someone up, and any attempt to do so may backfire spectacularly.

If you work for an organization of any size, or have amassed any considerable power, reputation, or influence personally, you need to keep that at the forefront of your mind in every interaction you ever have with anyone, anywhere, ever. The reason for this constant attention is to keep you from becoming the overdog and thereby making an ass of yourself (and your organization, if you belong to one). Go read about the Streisand Effect and think proactively about how to keep that from happening to you.

Now, for the purposes of this tutorial I am going to arbitrarily sort the full range of possible messages into four bins:

  1. Those that make the teller look good.
  2. Those that make the teller look bad.
  3. Those that make someone else look good.
  4. Those that make someone else look bad.

Two and three are dead easy and often go hand in hand. If you want to spread messages of that type, all you have to do is find someone with less power, reputation, or influence–a prospective underdog, in other words–and be a jerk to them, thus turning them into an actual underdog. Coercion, threats, employment termination–these are all pretty good and may eventually pay off. But if you really want to look like a complete tit, and make the other party an instant hero, you gotta go for censorship. Out here in bitspace, it is the ne plus ultra of suicidal moves. It’s like Chuck Norris winding up for a roundhouse kick to someone’s face, only somehow his foot misses the other person’s face and hits him right in the junk instead. We will click and tap on that until they pry the mice and touchscreens from our cold, dead hands.

The first one–positive messages about yourself–is tricky. You can’t just go around telling people that you’re awesome. Anyone with any sense will suspect advertising. The only sure-fire method I know of is to do good work where people can see it. One thing you will just have to accept is that reputations are slow-growing but fast-burning. So, again, try to avoid burning yours down.

The last one–making someone else look bad–is also surprisingly tricky. If you just broadcast negatives to the world, that will probably backfire. At the very least, people start thinking of you as a negative force rather than a positive one. If the person you want to make look bad has ever lied or falsified data or oppressed anyone, use that. If they’ve ever tried to censor someone, or are actively trying to censor you, rejoice, they’ve done most of the work for you.

The upside of that last one is that, provided you’re not actively nasty, it is hard for others to hurt your reputation. If they just spew vitriol, it will probably backfire. If they lie about you, it will definitely backfire. About the only way to really trash your reputation is through your own actions. Your fate is in your own hands.


So, this is transparently a meditation on the DNLee/Biology Online/Scientific American story.

I would really like to know the backstory. Did someone at Biology Online contact SciAm and ask them to take down DNLee’s post? If so, well, geez, that was stupid. Why does anyone ever expect this to work anymore? I mean, the actual event from which the Streisand Effect got its name happened a decade ago, which may seem short in human terms but is an eternity online (it’s two-thirds of the lifespan to date of Google, for example).

If someone at SciAm did it unilaterally to protect their valued financial partner, it was doubly stupid, because not only did the censorship act itself fail, but now people like me are wondering if Biology Online asked for that “protection”. In other words, people are now suspecting Biology Online of something they might not have even done (although what they did do–what their employee did on their behalf, which amounts to the same thing–was bad enough).

So all in all the affair is like a tutorial on how to royally cock things up on the internet. And in fact it continues to be–Mariette DiChristina’s “apology” is a classic non-apology, that uses a torrent of words to say very little. Her self-contradictory tweets are much more revealing, despite being under 140 characters each. And in fact her loudest message is the complete lack of communication with DNLee before she pulled the post. So meaning scales inversely with message length for DiChristina–not a great quality in an Editor-In-Chief. And, OMG does she need to learn about the Asoh defense.

In the end, the whole thing just saddens me. I’m sad that SciAm made the wrong call immediately and reflexively. It says to me that they don’t care about transparency or integrity. They may say otherwise, but they are belied by their actions.

I’m sad that, having not even known that Biology Online exists, my perception of them now starts from a position of, “Oh, the ones that called that science writer a whore.” (If you’re a BO fan, please don’t write in to tell me how wonderful BO actually is; doing so is just admitting that you didn’t read this post.)

I’m sad that this happened to DNLee. I hope that going forward her reputation is determined by the quality of her work and the integrity of her actions, and not by words and circumstances inflicted on her by others.

… I wonder if I could make it as a corporate consultant if I put on a suit, walked into rooms full of pointy-haired bosses, and just explained the Streisand Effect and the Asoh Defense as if they were novel insights. I’ll bet I could make a killing.


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