Not so great paper titles

Following up on the previous post on great paper titles, I have some scattered thoughts about how to make a lousy paper title too. In retrospect, I have a fair share of such myself and many papers that probably would be read more if I only had given some more thought to the title. Here are some categories of less-than-perfect titles, with most examples from my own publication list.

We tried to find something, but we didn’t, and now we want a publication anyway. Essentially these are titles that don’t mention results when they otherwise should have: “Exploring maps with greedy navigators” (OK, we explore the maps, but what did we find?), “Temporal networks as a modeling framework” (OK, we developed a framework to do something, why not write what for?). Usually titles with “addressing,” “explaining,” “examining,” “exploring,” “investigating,” “uncovering,” “untangling,” “detangling,” “disentangling,” “dismantling,” “dissecting,” “unraveling,” “charting,” “mapping,” “understanding,” “discovering,” “probing” or “proposing a framework” fall into this category. Many times it is not true that the authors didn’t find anything interesting, but from the title, it seems like they didn’t. Slightly less euphemistic versions would start with “modeling” or “towards a.”

Too general titles My most cited paper probably got many citations from sounding as broad as a review paper—”Attack vulnerability of complex networks”—but in the long run, too general titles just give a wrong impression.

Abstract-length titles I’m not so happy with “Prisoners’ dilemma in real-world acquaintance networks: Spikes and quasi-equilibria induced by the interplay between structure and dynamics.” Sure, it sums up the paper well, but so does the abstract. Still, it probably has more popular appeal than “Reaction of a bidentate ligands (4,4′-dimethyl 2,2′-bipyridine) with planar-chiral chloro-bridged ruthenium: Synthesis of cis-dicarbonyl[4,4′-dimethyl-2,2′-bipyridine- κO1,κO2]{2-[tricarbonyl(η6-phenylene- κC1)chromium]pyridine-κN}ruthenium hexafluorophosphate.” See this blog post for some other long ones.

Set phrases and other poetry. This is a grey zone. The most common set phrases can hardly come across as witty (just how many “Birds of a feather” papers are there?). It is easy to make the title incomprehensible in this way. (I’m apparently not the only one who wondered about what “Who shall survive?” really refers to (well, it’s a book, not a paper, but anyway).) On the other hand, it’s tempting to join the race to sneak Dylan quotes into titles. And, after all, taking away the poetic dimension of scientific writing ultimately would just make life too dull for the readers. Scientists are humans too.

The pneumatics of homeostasis Maybe it’s just me, but I’m a bit allergic to “The [one scholarly field] of [a topic usually belonging to another field]” titles. Maybe because the vast majority, I think, of such papers almost entirely stay in the “another field” while making only weak references to the “one scholarly field.” Maybe I could allow an exception for “the art of” because it is just a phrase. I’ll try to make this point more quantitative someday (in the forthcoming The anatomy of paper titles).

Questions It is usually said that the hard part of science is to ask the right question. I’ve always been a bit skeptical about that since it sounds like an invite to redefine your questions to fit your answers. (Which is definitely not a crime, but also not an ideal.) The science lies in answering questions, so better put the answer in the title. There are exceptions. I love Aaron Clauset’s title “How large should whales be?” … as if he was about to build some.

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