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”.
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.