Friday, November 07, 2008

Selling It

No, this is not about FSP: The T-Shirt again. This is about selecting an informative and interesting title for a manuscript. How do you find the right balance between advertising the paper's larger context (a.k.a. putting an alluring spin on the paper) and giving a realistic indication of the scope and content of the paper?

Sometimes it is obvious what the title of a paper should be, and sometimes title selection requires a lot of thought. When the title isn't obvious, I like to write down some key words and phrases and then experiment a bit until I get something that I like.

Choosing a good title is important because you may be able to attract more readers with the right paper title. Even so, you don't want to be misleading; e.g. your paper may well be relevant in some way to the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and/or the origin of anything and everything, but it's probably not a good idea to title your paper The Origin of Everything unless you've really figured it out or are writing a novel, not a science paper.

In some cases, of course, the paper topic is of broad interest and it's easy to come up with a compelling title. In other cases, the research might well be interesting, but if you give a paper a very specific and technical title, you might lose potential readers who don't see (from the title) just how fascinating and relevant the work is.

One solution to the problem of wanting an interesting but realistic title for highly technical papers is to use a colon to separate a big-picture sexy part of the title from a more specific part of a title. For example, The Origin of Everything: Results of Synchronous beta-Floovian Vortical Inverse Calculations at High Woozy Number, and Implications gives the context and the specifics in one long glorious title.

Titles with colons do tend to get a bit long. They need not (e.g. My Research: Results), but they tend to. Is that such a bad thing? Perhaps it's not so bad now that many people use referencing software and don't have to type out your egregiously long title, but even so, some people like titles with colons and some people loathe them. In fact, it's amazing how passionate people feel about the issue of No Colon vs.Colon in titles.

I have been part of quite a few intense debates about this very issue with my colleagues. Unless you are in a field with a strong tradition of colons or no colons, in which case there is not much point in debating the topic, try bringing up the issue of paper titles the next time you are at the pub or cafe with some colleagues. Don't be shy about it and say "Hey, what do you guys think about colons in titles?"; try to get a real debate going, e.g. by saying something like "People who use/don't use colons in titles are.." [pick descriptive word or phrase]. I have found that very few people have no opinion about the colon/title issue, though they may not realize they have such opinions until forced to take a side.

I suppose I am mostly anti-colon, but I don't get too twisted up about it if I decide the only realistic option is to use one. In fact, I just checked my CV and it looks like my No Colon to Colon ratio is about 3 : 1, though it seems to have increased over time. When I have a spare moment sometime, I may do a word count of paper titles and plot them up by year. I wonder if I am getting more terse. I might be.

There are many more related issues to explore in the future: What about paper titles that are questions? How do you balance the big picture vs. specific information issue in the introduction of a paper? Have you ever written a paper that begins with the word "On"?


Anne M. Archibald said...

How about paper titles that tell the reader everything they actually need to know? I have one paper titled "No radio emission from [source]", which is all 90% of readers ever need to know about it. If you read it, sure, I give upper limits, methods, and some speculation as to why we don't see any radio (and yes, an introduction explaining why we would expect to), but really, it's all there in the title. But null result papers are always a little dull, I guess.

geomom said...

fsp--I am basically anti-colon for papers, but don't mind them so much for talks.

Anne--null results which spell it out in the title are GREAT! and I bet it will be referenced a lot because of that.

What I seem to always have to tell junior colleagues and students is this "The science can't sell itself. YOU have to do it!" That is a much harder concept to learn that it appears :-)

Dan said...

@Ann Archibald: It might be dull, or it might simply be because you have a very clearly defined hypothesis and an unambiguous test of that hypothesis. I love papers with those sorts of titles.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

This is interesting. The titles of all of my papers are either complete sentences or noun phrases. Only about 10% of my publications have colons in the title, and only one of these is a research article; the rest others are all reviews.

And as Anne suggested, the vast majority of my paper titles encapsulate for the reader the main take-home conclusion of the article. Fun discussion topic, FSP!

BTW, I really do not feel strongly one way of the other about the use of colons in paper titles. What I do find extremely annoying is when authors give a series of papers titles like this:

Investigation of blibby-blap in the whoozy whatsis I: The early years

Investigation of blibby-blap in the whoozy whatsis II: The adolescent years

Investigation of blibby-blap in the whoozy whatsis III: Young adulthood

and so forth.

Chris said...

My rule of thumb is that when the title of the paper is a question, the answer is almost certainly "No", regardless of what conclusions the authors come to in the paper.

Tinkering Theorist said...

Papers that begin with "On" are like homework problems that begin with "Consider". It is not a good sign in either case.

Lynne said...

I have one colon-title paper, but generally I'm pretty strongly against it. I just like titles shorter, and I think a lot of people use colons in their titles so they can cram more keywords into it. But that's what keywords are for. So I try to find a more concise way to combine the general idea with the specifics (e.g. "Insights into the origins of titles from the letters A, E, I, and U"). Sometimes it's tricky, though.

Professor Staff said...

My students joke that I cannot publish a paper without a colon in the title. This is actually true only 40% of the time, but it allows me to address the two issues you talked about. "General Concept: Specific Finding."

Sometimes I resort to the direct approach "A causes B." I find this often doesn't work (the devil is in the details), but sometimes it is a catchy way to make a point.

Anonymous said...

Colons can be fine--sometimes they work well--but if I see a CV with a long list of similarly constructed titles it can get a bit monotonous.

I'm much less sure about questions in titles. Unless the point of the paper is to ask, rather than answer, the question, why not just write the answer in the title? Normally, instead of "Is superconductivity possible in nanoscale pizzas?" I would normally prefer "Superconductivity in nanoscale pizzas at room temerature" or whatever.

The worst I've seen is a yes or no question as the title with the answer as the first word of the abstract. At least the authors got to the point...

Short Geologist said...

I'm all for colons in titles, but I'm also all for elaborate sentences and parantheticals. This drives certain anti-comma/colon/semicolon people nuts. Probably 1/10 of the papers I've looked at have a colon in the title.

Alex said...

In biology you will sometimes see papers with questions in the title. It seems strange to me, because if you have an answer then why not just put that in the title? But, being a biophysicist, I tried to write a paper with the question in the title. The reviewer felt that the question in the title was broader than the results in the paper, so the title got changed to something really boring.

My latest paper started off with "Problem: Results" but I decided that the words in the "results" portion of the title were more impressive than the words in the "problem" portion of the title, so to grab attention I changed it to "Results on Problem."

Some day I want to produce a paper where the title has a pun in it.

Anonymous said...

I think starting a paper with "On" is more generational, in the style of paper-writing from the 50's. Also, I knew an 'older generation' scientist who also tended to use colons in her titles, so I wonder if that is also generational.

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

(Off topic) Ahh, question marks in titles! I once published two articles in two sequential issues of a journal. The first one was "Mumbo Jumbo?" and discussed all the issues people have with Mumbo Jumbo.

The second one was called "Mumbo Jumbo!" demonstrating how exactly to do this.

I think having a Hamming distance of 1 for two titles is cool, but I wouldn't recommend it as general advice.

Average Professor said...

At the conclusion of a great little project, my colleagues and I were discussing a title for the paper, and one of them suggested a title that was a complete sentence, which is not the norm in my discipline.

The other guy and I were silent for a moment, and then I said quietly, "That makes me uncomfortable. It's so declarative." And the other guy said, "I don't like it either. It's like . . . Curious George Goes to the Zoo."

In the end, we went with a non-sentencey version of the same keywords, but every time we refer to the project amongst ourselves, we call it Curious George.

flit said...

colons are a pain in the posterior in titles ... they trip me up and annoy me every time I have to go hunt them down and kill em before I can save a copy with the full title when I'm working with online databases.

Anne M. Archibald said...

The most common use of comments in my field seems to be "[source]: [statement or question]" (e.g.: "Neptune: Inhabited by Cylons?" or "The Moon: A Cheese-based Equation of State") or "[statement]: [sources]" (e.g. "Astrophysical Lasers and Masers: Mars, Jupiter, and the Earth")

Peter H said...

Titles as short as possible, to describe the paper - especially the results. If a colon aids this, why not use it?

Good english grammar in science is positive not negative.

I work in the agriculture and environmental fields, and the colon is less common.

And I hate questions as a title!

Dagny said...

I love the first line of the post!

Ms.PhD said...

Lately I find have no patience with obsessing over titles. And my advisor is no help. Advisor has a tendency to get attached to titles that are really overstating what we can claim we did, which tends to piss off reviewers. I tend to pick titles that are more descriptive and understated.

I know the the right answer is somewhere in between, but spending even 1 hour on it seems really masturbatory.

Personally I think it's helpful for thinking about what you did and how to write the rest of the papaer, but since most people reference papers by Author Name, Journal, Year and not by title, sometimes debating the exact wording seems like superfluous window dressing to me.

And I'm mostly anti-colon, but mostly because people tend to use punctuation incorrectly anyway. Although this week I'm mostly on an anti-apostrophe kick after I saw CNN use something along the lines of "Bush Welcomes Obama's to the White House"


Shriram Krishnamurthi said...

A graduate school professor once recommended picking titles that were pared to their essences. That is, if you write a paper that expects to be foundational in the area of Chives and Dumplings, don't call it An Investigation Into the Nature and Use of Chives in the Preparation of Dumplings. Call it Chives and Dumplings.
He gave a cynical reason: people will always be able to find it, and they'll have no choice but to cite it. But there are other, good, reasons too.

I'm personally rather over-fond of slipping a joke into a title. It makes papers memorable. Fortunately, one of my most common co-authors hates jokes in titles, so it keeps me balanced.

For books, I learned the following rule: Make sure it abbreviates to something good. I work in an area with a tradition for (a) four-word titles that are (b) truncated to initials. I never entirely thought about this until I heard someone pronounce my book as “play” (the actual initialism is “PLAI”). That made me happy, because it does evoke the spirit of the book. (Sadly, my third one initializes to “HtDW”, which is unpronounceable in any language known to man, perhaps including Polish.)

Silver Fox said...

I love colons, in titles and elsewhere.

Anonymous said...


Can you advertise this petition in your blog (if you agree with it of course)?

Anonymous said...

I love titles with colons. The reason is, when I read them, in my head they are read in a very dramatic stage voice similar to how the names of the documentaries at the Oscars are read. Because documentaries almost always have colons, too.

Kait said...

For some reason, having a question as the title of a paper makes me think of a fifth-grade science fair project: "How do volcanoes work?" "What are electrons?" etc.

Anonymous said...

My humanity / social science has a tradition of "Sexy title: list of specific indexable keywords in clause format, time delimiters." Sexy title should be less than four words.