Tutorial 29, Appendix A: good, bad and ugly titles of Mike’s papers

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.



7 Responses to “Tutorial 29, Appendix A: good, bad and ugly titles of Mike’s papers”

  1. Mark Robinson Says:

    I’ve made that title tweetable for you :-) –
    Electronic publication of nomenclatural acts is inevitable. Will be accepted by taxonomic community with/without the endorsement of the Code

    I wonder if you were to be awarded three points instead of two for a good title whether you might feel more incentive to push for an “ADEQUATE” or even a “BRILLIANT” instead of settling for “NOT BAD”? It seems to have worked for football.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Mark, I think that just being aware that there’s a difference between good and bad titles at all makes a big difference. Bizarrely, it’s an aspect of writing papers that tends to get very little attention, even though the words of the title are more important than those of any other part. See Jakob Nielsen’s ancient AlertBox column on the importance of “microcontent”.

    In fact Nielsen goes even further, and argues that the first two words do most of the work in a title. Food for thought. You really don’t want to waste those two words on “Some aspects” or “Study of”.

  3. ncmncm Says:

    The rules for what makes a good title for a paper are evidently the opposite to what makes a good book title. In particular: “Never buy a book with a sentence in the title.” …which would not be a good book title.

    The rule is arrived at empirically. Few book titles are sentences, but all those I have encountered turned out to be bad, one way or another. I speculate it must be because the author doesn’t expect people will ever read it, or if they do, they will find it unpersuasive. His only real opportunity to get his message out is when people scan lists of titles, or spines in the stacks. There, sentences stand out as rare complete thoughts, and stick more easily without the filtering a less-distracted mind would apply.

    “The Medium is the Message”
    “The Big Bang Never Happened”
    “I’m OK, You’re OK”
    “All Dogs Go to Heaven”
    “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”
    “When in Doubt, Run”
    “Play the Market and Win”

    Then again, “Steal This Book”.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Good point. Perhaps this indicates that you’d expect a book to convey a more subtle, nuanced argument, whereas a typical paper has essentially one point to make. (Then again, I’ve read plenty of books that have one point to make, too, where chapter 1 is excellent and the rest is padding to make it up to “book length”.)

  5. […] 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 […]

  6. […] Mike and Matt review their own paper titles here and here, […]

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

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