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"?
10 years ago