Tutorial 29: how to choose a title for your paper

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”.

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.


14 Responses to “Tutorial 29: how to choose a title for your paper”

  1. Very good points Mike! I especially like your suggestion to use the name of the new taxon in the title. That would be very useful indeed.

  2. Frosted Flake Says:


    How to pick them.

  3. I was discussing this yesterday with a colleague (we are mathematicians). I have an example following Mike’s advice: the main theorem is summarised by the title “The weak choice principle WISC may fail in the category of sets” (http://arxiv.org/abs/1311.3074, cc-by licensed)

  4. […] light of yesterday’s tutorial on choosing titles, here are the titles of all my own published papers (including co-authored ones), in chronological […]

  5. I have to disagree, Mike. If you list your main conclusion in the title, you help people reduce it to the main conclusion. If that’s erroneous, it is less likely that all the good data you likely created, the data your conclusion is based on, will be read anyone. Especially by lazy people.

    I do agree, though, that the name of a new taxon should be in the title. Anything else is just making people search unnecessarily.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    You make a good point.

  7. Jay Says:

    I agree with the taxon name being included where possible.

    However, broader or all encompassing studies need not be justified with specific title selection as much as those focused on a narrow question.

    E.g., a monographic work titled “osteological description of new materials of xxx” is presenting a whole heap of new morphological data for the benefit of that area of science and for others to use in future works thereafter, and is not seeking to address a specific question with one or two experimental tests. For the same work, the hypothetical title “new materials of taxon xxx demonstrate a, b, c, d [diagnostic characters]” is obviously stupid.

    A broad descriptive work that in effect asks: “what is the morphology of element X?; Is element X differentially diagnostic?; what is the morphology of element Y?; etc etc” should be treated differently to a narrower work that seeks to address the aim: “was Brachiosaurus capable for rearing?”

    As an aside, I also don’t see the issue with the title BZN choose for Case 3472 – because it says precisely what it is about.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes, Jay — as noted in several examples in Appendix A to this post, nounal phrases are appropriate for certain categories of paper — those with many small conclusions.

  9. Eric Snively Says:

    Came here for inspiration on new manuscript titles, and remembered that Don Henderson’s “Burly Gaits” was one of mine; check the acknowledgements. We thought it had everything to do with the Pearly Gates, because sauropods are extinct. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica denied/spared the world “Arch predators” for our paper on tyrannosaur nasals.

  10. […] 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 […]

  11. […] title, some ‘hook’ titles – “Why giraffes have short necks”). See these three posts for […]

  12. […] label. Any short label is going to omit important information. This is related to the problem of paper title length – below some threshold, making something shorter means making it […]

  13. bill sanders Says:

    Don’t be a pedant–the title “Latest evidence of Palaeoamasia” tells you exactly what the paper is about: the youngest known evidence of this taxon. You want to know what that evidence is, then you go into the paper and read the abstract and text. Titles should be terse and give you the main thrust of the paper. Imagine a genetics paper, and (by your rules) having to provide every detail about the evidence in the title–it would be too unwieldy.

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    Of course I’ll be a pedant — that comes with the territory of being a scientist. We aim to do things right, not merely adequately. And that title tells me very little. I don’t know if the evidence is a complete skeleton with soft-tissue preservation or an eroded partial mid-to-distal caudal centrum, or indeed a trace fossil. For that matter, I don’t even know for sure whether “latest evidence” means most geologically recent, or merely hot off the press. We can do better.

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