Step 1: Include the Share-Alike provision in your Creative Commons license, as in the mysteriously popular CC BY-SA and CC BY-NC-SA.

Step 2: Listen to the crickets. You’re done. Congratulations! No-one will ever use your silhouette in a scientific paper, and they probably won’t use your stuff in talks or posters either. Luxuriate in your obscurity and wasted effort.

Pachyrhinosaurus canadensis by Andrew A. Farke, CC BY 3.0, courtesy of


PhyloPic is the incredibly useful thing that Mike Keesey made where makers upload silhouettes of organisms and then people can use them in papers, posters, talks, on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and so on.

At least, they can if the image license allows it. And tons of them don’t, because people include the stupid Non-Commercial (NC) and even stupider Share-Alike (SA) provisions in their image licenses. (Need a refresher on what those are? See the tutorial on licenses.)

Why are these things dumb? Well, you could make a case for NC, but it will still probably kill most potential uses of your images. Most journals are run by companies — well, most are run by incredibly rapacious corporations that extract insane profits from the collective suckerhood that is academia — and using such an image in a for-profit journal would break the Non-Commercial clause. Even open-access journals are a bit murky.

But Share-Alike is way, way worse. What it means is that any derivative works that use material released under CC-BY-SA have to be released under that license as well. Share-Alike came to us from the world of software, where it actually has some important uses, which Mike will expand upon in the next post. But when it comes to PhyloPic or pretty much any other quasi-academic arena, including the Share-Alike provision is misguided.

As of this writing, PhyloPic has two silhouettes of Panphagia. I can actually show you this one, because it doesn’t have the Share-Alike license attached. The other one is inaccessible. Image by Ricardo N. Martinez and Oscar A. Alcober, CC BY 3.0, courtesy of

Why not Share-Alike?

Why is Share-Alike so dumb for PhyloPic? It’s a viral license that in this context accomplishes nothing for the creator. Because the downstream material must also be CC BY-SA (minimally, or CC BY-NC-SA), almost any conceivable use is prevented:

  • People can’t use the images in barrier-based journals, because they’re copyrighted.
  • People can’t use the images in almost all OA journals, because they’re CC BY, and authors can’t just impose a more restrictive license on them willy-nilly.
  • People can’t use the images in their talks or posters, unless they want to make their talks and posters CC BY-SA. Even people who do release their talks and posters out into the wild are probably going to use CC BY if they use anything; they care about being cited, not about forcing downstream users to adopt a pointlessly restrictive license.
  • People probably can’t use the images on t-shirts or bumper stickers; at least, I have a hard time imagining how a physical object could meet the terms of CC BY-SA, unless it’s being given away for free. And even if one could, most downstream creators probably won’t want the headache — they’ll grab a similar image released under a less restrictive license and move on.
  • I can’t even blog the CC BY-SA images because everything we put on this blog is CC BY (except where noted by a handful of more restrictive museum image use policies), and it would more than a little ironic to make this one post CC BY-SA, which it would have to be if it included CC BY-SA images.

You may think I’m exaggerating the problem. I’m not. If you look at the Aquilops paper (Farke et al. 2014), you’ll see a lot of ceratopsian silhouettes drawn by Andy Farke. We were making progress on the paper and when it came time to finish the illustrations, most of the silhouettes we needed had the Share-Alike provision, which made them useless to us. So Andy drew his own. And while he was doing that, I took some of my old sauropod drawings and converted them to silhouettes and uploaded them. Both of us used CC BY, because all we care about is getting cited. And now people are using — and citing! — Andy’s and my drawings in preference to others, some arguably better (at least for the sauropods), that have pointlessly restrictive licenses.

So we have this ridiculous situation where a ton of great images on PhyloPic are essentially unusable, because people put them up under a license that sounds cool but actually either outright blocks or at least has a chilling effect on almost any conceivable use.

Is this a good silhouette of Camarasaurus? Maybe, maybe not. But that’s beside the point: this is currently the only silhouette of Camarasaurus on PhyloPic that you can actually use. By Mathew Wedel, CC BY 3.0, courtesy of

What I do about this

Here’s my take: I care about one thing and one thing only, which is credit. All I need is CC BY. If someone wants to take my stuff and put it in a product and charge a profit, I say go for it — because legally every copy of that product has to have my name on it somewhere, credited as the creator of the image. I may not be making any money off that product, but I’m at least getting exposure. If I go CC BY-NC, then I also don’t get any money, and now I don’t even get that exposure. Why would I hack my own foot off like that? And I don’t use CC BY-SA because I don’t write software, so it has only downsides to offer me.

Now, there are certainly artists in the world with sufficient talent to sell t-shirts and prints. But even for them I’m skeptical that CC BY-NC has much to offer for their PhyloPic silhouettes. I know we’re all nuts around here for monochrome filled outlines of dead animals, but let’s be real, they’re a niche market at best for clothing and lifestyle goods. Personally I’d rather get the citations than prevent someone in Birmingham or Bangkok from selling cladogram t-shirts with tiny copies of my drawings, and I think that would still be true even if I was a professional artist.

What you should do about this

I suspect that a lot of people reading this post are dinosaur enthusiasts. If you are, and you’d like to get your name into published scientific work (whether you pursue writing and publishing yourself or not), get drawin’, and upload those babies using CC-BY. Make sure it is your own original work, not just a skin thrown over someone else’s skeletal recon, and don’t spam PhyloPic with garbage. But if you can execute a technical drawing of a critter, there’s a good chance it will be used and cited. Not only because there are still holes in PhyloPic’s coverage, but because so many otherwise great images on PhyloPic are locked up behind restrictive licenses. To pick an example nearly at random, PhyloPic has two silhouettes of Pentaceratops, and both of them are useless because of the Share-Alike provision in their licenses. You have an opportunity here. Don’t tarry.

If you already uploaded stuff to PhyloPic using CC BY-SA for whatever reason (it sounded cool, Joe Chill murdered your folks, you didn’t realize that it was academic reuse equivalent of radioactive syphilis), change it or replace it. Because all it is doing right now is driving PhyloPic users to other people’s work. Really, honestly, all you are doing is wasting your time by uploading this stuff, and wasting the time of PhyloPic users who have to hover over your pictures to find out that they’re inaccessible.

You don’t get any credit if no-one ever uses your stuff. Or, more precisely, you get 100% of a pie that doesn’t exist. That’s dumb. Stop doing it.


Farke, A.A., Maxwell, W.D., Cifelli, R.L., and Wedel, M.J. 2014. A ceratopsian dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Western North America, and the biogeography of Neoceratopsia. PLoS ONE 9(12): e112055. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0112055

A few months ago I got an email from Nathan Myers, who asked me:

Do you have advice for someone who wants to spin up a new OA journal? Is there automation for the boring parts? Is someone you know well versed in what to do?

In many ways, I’m the wrong person to ask: I’ve never started a journal, OA or otherwise, nor even served on an editorial board.

But, hey, I’m not one to let something like that stop me. So here’s what I told Nathan. I’m sure I missed a lot of important possibilities: please point them out in this comments. I’ll try to keep this post updated as the landscape changes.

There are several good options at this point.

The simplest and cheapest is probably to use Annotum, a WordPress plugin that helps with the review workflow. I’ve not used it myself, but I know it’s what PLOS Currents uses, so it’s obvious battle-ready. I’m not sure but I think you can use it as a theme in a free blog.

Scholastica offers very low-cost support for running an overlay journal, as for example the recently launched Discrete Analysis: see Tim Gowers’ blog-post about the new journal.

Open Journals Systems is a widely used software package for running open-access journals — IIRC they have more that 10,000 running installations worldwide. I’ve not used it, but it evidently has what it takes.

If you have some funding to cover production charges, or are able to charge an APC, you can use a full-service option from a low-cost OA publisher such as Ubiquity Press.

PeerJ’s system is widely liked — very easy for authors and reviewers to use. Its software is all on GitHub, though I think some work would be needed to tie it all together. If you have the software engineering chops, this may be the best option for performance/price ratio.

What else?

Wedel 2005 Morrison sauropod cervicals 1 - Diplodocus

When I was back in Oklahoma in March, I met with Anne Weil to see some of the new Apatosaurus material she’s getting out of her Homestead Quarry. It’s nice material, but that’s a post for another day. Anne said something that really resonated with me, which was, “I love it when you guys post about vertebral morphology, because it helps me learn this stuff.” Okay, Anne, message received. This will begin to make things right.

Wedel 2005 Morrison sauropod cervicals 2 - Barosaurus and centra shapes

I spent a week at BYU back in 2005, collecting data for my dissertation. One of the first things I had to do was teach myself how to identify the vertebrae of different sauropods, because BYU has just about all of the common Morrison taxa. These are the notes I made back then.

Wedel 2005 Morrison sauropod cervicals 3 - Brachiosaurus and Apatosaurus

I always planned to do something with them – clean them up, get them into a more usable form. There are a lot of scribbly asides that are probably hard for others to read, and it would be more useful if I put the easily confused taxa next to each other – Barosaurus next to Brachiosaurus, for example. And I didn’t go into serial changes at all.

Wedel 2005 Morrison sauropod cervicals 4 - Camarasaurus and Haplocanthosaurus

Still, hopefully someone will find these useful. If there are things I missed or got wrong, the comment thread is open. And if you want all four spreads in one convenient package, here’s a PDF: Wedel 2005 notes on Morrison sauropod cervicals

Mike and I leave for the Sauropocalypse tomorrow. I’m hoping to post at least a few pretty pictures from the road, as I did for the Mid-Mesozoic Field Conference two years ago. Stand by…

Saurischian laminae and fossae v2 - Adam Marsh 2015

[Hi folks, Matt here. I’m just popping in to introduce this guest post by Adam Marsh (UT Austin page, LinkedIn, ResearchGate). Adam is a PhD student at UT Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences, currently working for a semester as a Visiting Student Researcher at my old stomping ground, Berkeley’s UCMP.  Adam’s been working at Petrified Forest National Park in the summers and most of his research is on the Navajo Nation in Arizona. His major interest is in how we perceive extinctions in the fossil record. Specifically, he’s exploring the geochronology of the Glen Canyon Group to look at the biotic response to the end-Triassic mass extinction. He’s also working on an overhaul of the early saurischian dinosaurs of western North America – hence this post. It’s timely because I was just talking in the last post about putting together infographics to spread your ideas; here Adam’s very nice diagram serves as a quick guide and pointer to several papers by Jeff Wilson and colleagues. Many thanks to Sarah Werning for suggesting that Adam and I get acquainted over vertebrae. Update the next day: both the diagram above and the PDF linked below have been updated to fix a couple of typos. Also, there are now black and white versions – see below.]

– – – – – – – – – –

If you’re like me, you don’t count sheep when you fall asleep, you count laminae. These struts of bone and their affiliated fossae connect and span between major structural features on vertebral neural arches such as prezygapophyses, postzygapophyses, parapophyses, diapophyses, hyposphenes, hypantra, and the neural spine. Presumably, laminae bracket and fossae house outgrowths of pneumatic diverticula from the respiratory system, which has been covered extensively on this blog in sauropodomorph dinosaurs.

Talking about these complicated structures is cumbersome; they’ve been called buttresses, ridges, struts, etc. throughout descriptive skeletal literature. But what we call things is important, especially when we introduce laminae and other vertebral structures to the rigors of phylogenetic systematics, where homologous apomorphies reign supreme. In order to avoid arguing about whether one structure is called the potato or the tomato, Jeff Wilson and others introduced a strategy of naming vertebral laminae (Wilson, 1999) and the fossae (Wilson et al., 2011) that they surround using the same vertebral landmarks that most tetrapod anatomists agree upon (see the parade of –apophyses above). The process is very simple. Vertebral laminae are named for the two structures that they connect; the prezygodiapophyseal lamina (prdl) connects the prezygapophysis and the diapophysis, so each neural arch will have two prdls. Vertebral fossae are named for the two major laminae that constrain them; the prezygocentrodiapophyseal fossa (prcdf) opens anterolaterally and is delineated dorsally by the prezygodiapophyseal lamina and ventrally by the anterior centrodiapophyseal lamina. Again, each neural arch will have two prcdfs. Those of you who are black belt vertebral anatomists, to borrow a favorite phrase from my advisor, might be interested in serial variation and how these structures change up and down the vertebral column. Until I get my act together and publish some cool new saurischian data, I will refer you to Wilson (2012). [We’ve also touched on serial variation in laminae in this post and this one. – MJW]

Saurischian laminae and fossae v2 bw - Adam Marsh 2015

Same thing in black and white, with labels


You might have noticed that the names are a mouthful and take up their fair share of typed characters. In my research of early saurischian dinosaurs, I’ve run across quite a few of these laminae everywhere from herrerasaurids to sauropodomorphs to coelophysoids to Dilophosaurus. Even though I’ve drawn, photographed, and written about various laminae and fossae, I still need to remind myself of what goes where and what it’s called. Believe me, vertebral lamina nomenclature does not lend itself well to Dem Bones covers. As a result, I’ve put together a reference figure that might be useful for those of you who are dealing with this or even teaching it to students. At the very least, you can put it on the ceiling above your bed so that it’s the first thing you see when you open your eyes in the morning.

Four main vertebral laminae are present plesiomorphically in archosaurs: the anterior and posterior centrodiapophyseal laminae, the prezygodiapophyseal lamina, and the postzygodiapophyseal lamina. This means that the prezygocentrodiapophyseal, postzygocentrodiapophyseal, and centrodiapophyseal fossae are present, and sometimes the top of the transverse process is concave between the neural spine and the zygapophyses to form the spinodiapophyseal fossa. I know that a certain sister group of Sauropodomorpha can get disparaged around these parts, but the truth is that theropods build long necks, too, and sometimes in very different ways than sauropodomorphs. When you are writing about the various vertebral buttresses and chonoses, don’t get frustrated with the names, because Wilson and his colleagues have actually made it much easier for us to talk to one another about presumably homologous structures without needing an additional degree in civil engineering.

– – – – – – – – – –

Here’s the figure again in PDF form: Marsh, Adam 2015 saurischian laminae and fossae diagram v2

And in black and white for those who prefer it that way: Marsh, Adam 2015 saurischian laminae and fossae diagram v2 bw


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 be 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 my 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.