Tutorial 29, Appendix B: good, bad, and ugly titles of Matt’s papers

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)

GOOD
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)

OK
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)

BAD
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)

OK
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)

GREAT

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)

OK
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)

OK
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)

OK
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)

GOOD
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)

GOOD

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)

GOOD

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)

OK
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.

Mike: RUBBISH

[October Matt wins again!]

A new sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah, USA. (13 words)

OK
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.

Mike: RUBBISH

The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection. Journal of Zoology. (12 words)

GOOD
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).

Mike: SWEET

The early evolution of postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in sauropodomorph dinosaurs. (10 words)

GOOD
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)

GOOD
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.

Mike: EXCELLENT

Neural spine bifurcation in sauropod dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation: ontogenetic and phylogenetic implications. (14 words)

OK
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)

OK
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)

OK
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)

GOOD
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)

GOOD
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)

OK
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.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Lessons

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.

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


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

  2. Andy Farke Says:

    Nice! If I were to do Aquilops all over again, I’d probably put the taxon name in the title.


  3. Interesting!
    I like ‘A monument of inefficiency…’ – by being longer than it strictly ‘needs’ to be, that title graphically conveys the point of the paper!


  4. I’d say some of the verdicts are off. Mike seems to like declarative, certain statements: “It is,” “that does,” etc. Rather than the typical “scientific” prose commonly found amongst all disciplines, which use the passive voice, the active voice declarative attempts to remove all doubt as to the whisiwashiness of the statement. This is good … when there is no doubt as to the statement.

    “Brontosaurus is a junior synonym of Apatosaurus.”

    But this isn’t always the case, and in some of the statements above, such as on cervical musculature or posture reconstructed from examining extant species, you’re making inferences, not asserting known facts. “The sauropod neck is inferred to be elevated by comparison to extant tetrapods,” “when the cervical musculature of a rhea is used as a model, the sauropod neck is…” and so forth. If you want to get rid of the passive voice (like “to be,” above) the phrasing changes dramatically, but it’s uncommon.

    Declarative statements imply certainty, but the writing within reveals there are is room for debate, as indeed is the case with neck posture and even musculature reconstruction. Thus we are given to the fairly ugly and common titles of many papers. It gets worse when you have to include taxonomic groups in your paper’s title, because that can increase the title’s length by quite a bit of tedious, useless words most readers may not care for. Mike has argued that we should use the base species names in titles, even new taxa, but this exacerbates the issue, as it forces us to write: “Banguela oberlii new tax. (Archosauria, Pterosauria, Pterodactyloidea, Dsungaripteridae)” or whatever. Not “a new dsungaripterid pterosaur…”

    The complex language we have also forces us to deal with things like “osteological correlates”; because let’s face it, we’re not talking to kids: “bone correlates” doesn’t even have the same meaning, much less sense, as “osteological correlates.” In relation to, but not of.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, Jaime, you may feel that statement-form titles such as “The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection” overstate the degree of certainty of the conclusion; I’m not too worried about that. Anyone who reads science understands from the get-go that all conclusions are subject to being superseded, disproven or otherwise overturned. It doesn’t need re-stating separately in each title.

    Meanwhile, you misunderstand the meanings of active and passive voice. Active voice means only that the subject of the sentence in the grammatical sense is also the things that the sentence is about; passive voice means that the sentence is about the thing that is its grammatical object. So:

    Active: I bought a Mars Bar.
    Passive: A Mars Bar was bought by me.

    There is nothing more “scientific” about passive voice. In many cases, as in this one, all it achieves is to make the statement clumsier and less clear — something that is always to be avoided in scientific writing (and non-scientific writing, for that matter). In other cases, it’s arguable which of the statement’s noun-clauses is more properly the focus of the statement, so that two alternatives are equally valid:

    Option 1: Sauropod dinosaurs held their necks and heads elevated like most other tetrapods
    Option 2: Elevated head and neck posture was used by sauropods, like most other tetrapods

    I think the former is still better, but the latter is not objectionable.

    The more common noun-phrase form of paper title, such as “The effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture and range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs” is neither active nor passive, since it doesn’t make a statement.

  6. Matt Wedel Says:

    Just popping in to address the ridiculous notion that passive voice is more scientific. The association of the passive voice with scientific writing is an accident of history. No-one seems to know where it came from, but there are plenty of arguments against it. A good summary of arguments on both sides can be found here, and some interesting letters to Nature in defense of the active voice are here.

    On the charge that using the active voice implies an unscientific certainty: on the contrary, the passive voice can be just as certain, even pedantic, but without the clarity of attribution. At least with active voice, if you think you detect an unseemly level of certainty, you know whom to blame.


  7. […] well for some projects, but not for others.” That’s the same conclusion I came to in my recent review of my own paper titles: I am increasingly enamored of titles that are full sentences, because then […]


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