Titles: fashion or function?

Sep 18 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I was innocently browsing my emailed Journal contents this morning and clearly had not consumed enough coffee. I opened the latest email from Journal of Evolutionary Biology and was smacked with the following title:

Differential investment in pre- vs. post-copulatory sexual selection reinforces a cross-continental reversal of sexual size dimorphism in Sepsis punctum (Diptera: Sepsidae) [link]

I'm sure the article is very interesting if you happen to work on that particular process in that particular organism. The study may even have wide ranging consequences for numerous other systems. But all I could think was, "say wut?" So I went to my own publication list to see how often I am guilty of equal specificity.

Of course I have similarly obscure article titles in my stable, but it's a trend I've been getting away from to a certain degree. With people tight for time to catch up on the literature, a title may be your only chance to pique the interest of a reader.

So how about you, reader? Do you make attempts to generalize your title at all? Does the venue dictate to what degree you worry about the reach of your title?

14 responses so far

  • My favourite ever article title popped up in one of my journal TOC RSS feeds last year. It is remarkable due to the way that the first half of the title sounds really interesting, but once you hit the second half it gets progressively less and less interesting with every word:

    "Comparative genomic analysis reveals species-dependent complexities that explain difficulties with microsatellite marker development in molluscs"

    (with apologies to the authors if they see this!)

  • M says:

    I've recently started to appreciate the advantages of a detailed title when it comes to doing literature searches. It's nice to know exactly what material/system was studied, using which methods, toward what application, etc. Sometimes keyword/abstract searches just don't get you where you need to be. I know that I get frustrated by general titles that lead one to think the article will be a review of sorts but is in fact on some ultra-specific topic that I have no interest in. The topic should at least be somewhat evident from the title.

    I do appreciate aesthetics though. Hopefully there's a middle ground?

  • Anon says:

    Love it Cath!

  • AProf says:

    I usually provide very specific and detailed titles. I am told such titles are very useful to editors while they are assigning reviewers for the paper.

    I have also on occasion changed the title once the paper came in for major revisions to make the title more "cute".

  • Drugmonky says:

    I have seen editors chastise authors for a title that is "a sentence". Apparently that is bad?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Really? Why would that be unwanted. Unless it's a bad sentence.

  • DJMH says:

    This isn't exactly about obscurity, but I infinitely prefer when the authors put some sort of clear statement in the title, rather than the open-ended "Function of neuron X in this circuit".

  • If the title is a sentence ... of 5-to-10 (minutes), to be able to comprehend what is being offered in the paper? That would be bad.

  • Drugmonky says:

    "Suppressing the shit out of GertZin expression in the Tiddle cells of the Physio-Whimple nucleus totally fucks up Bunny Hopping"

    How's that DJMH?

  • AK says:

    I have recently moved into a more biology-heavy field, and have noticed a lot of titles of the form "X is a Y," or "W is controlled by Z," which typically rub me the wrong way, as the title claim is always overly broad. Then again, it's better than my old subfield, where everyone has written a paper with the title "Our field beyond Model X," where Model X is a strawman model that no one believes.

  • Viola says:

    Wait - how does this relate to your critique of the overly-broad title back in 2010?
    http://scientopia.org/blogs/proflikesubstance/2010/08/16/eukaryotes-more-than-just-animals/

    I guess you could say the the authors piqued your interest, at least . . .

    FWIW, I actually understood the title - I don't sexual selection is a very narrow or particular field within evolution.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Viola, I was critiquing the fact that they used "Eukaryotes" as a cover all when they were only talking about metazoans. It had nothing to do with the subject of the title.

  • DJMH says:

    The Physio-whimple nucleus beats the hell out of Edinger Westphal, methinks.

  • Drugmonky says:

    That's a pretty good title DJMH. Neuron would be glad to take it.

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