Not so great paper titles

With reference to the previous post on great paper titles. I have some scattered thoughts about how to make a bad paper titles 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 mostly 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 not mentioning results when they easily could 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?). This is not to say we didn’t find anything, but from the title it seems like we didn’t.

Too general titles My most cited paper probably got many citations from sounding as general as a review paper—Attack vulnerability of complex networks—but in the long run, too general titles just give a bad 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 completely 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 completely stays 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 some day (in the forthcoming The anatomy of paper titles).

Questions It is usually said that the hard part in science is to ask the right question. I’ve always been a bit skeptical about that since is sounds like an invite to redefining 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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