Should a paper title tell you what the paper is about? Yes, but not the way Simon/Steve thinks

Image: You know what you’re walking into. © Gary J. Wood via, CC BY-SA 2.0

This is a joint post (argument and rejoinder) from Steve Heard and Simon Leather.  You can find it on either of their blogs.

Should a paper title tell you what the paper is about?  Yes, but not the way Simon thinks.

Steve opens with – A few weeks ago, Simon Leather blogged about one of his writing pet peeves: “titles of papers that give you no clue as to what the paper is about”.   I read this with great interest, for a couple of reasons – first, Simon is consistently thoughtful; and second, I’m terrible at titles and need to learn as much about good ones as I can!  Much to my surprise, I found myself disagreeing strongly, and Simon was kind enough to engage with me in this joint post.

I don’t mean that I disagree that a paper’s title should tell you what it’s about.  That’s exactly what a good title does!  My disagreement is, I think, more interesting.  Simon offered some examples of titles he scored as failing his tell-you-what-it’s-about criterion, and some he scored as passing.  I found myself scoring those examples exactly the opposite way: the ones that failed for him, succeeded for me; and vice versa.

What gives?  Well, most likely, I’m just wrong.  Simon has a couple of years more experience than me in science, has published many more papers than I have, and has significantly more editorial experience.  But “oh, I guess I’m just wrong” doesn’t make a very interesting blog post; so I’m going to work through my thinking here.

Here are two titles from Simon’s disliked list:*

Towards a unified framework for connectivity that disentangles movement and mortality in space and time

Seasonal host life-history processes fuel disease dynamics at different spatial scales

And here’s one from Simon’s liked list:

Ecology and conservation of the British Swallowtail Butterfly, Papilio machaon britannicus: old questions, new challenges, and potential opportunities

They’re on exactly opposite lists for me.  Simon dislikes the first one because “it takes until line 9 of the Abstract before you find out it’s about an insect herbivore, [and] until the Introduction to find out which species” (he dislikes the second for the same reason).  Simon likes the third because “you know exactly what this paper is all about”.  I think this is all wrong (sorry, Simon).   Since I’ve been writing about scientific writing as storytelling lately, let me put it this way.  Simon would like to know that the paper is “about” an insect herbivore, or “about” the British Swallowtail Butterfly.  But to me, that isn’t what it means to say a paper is “about” something – the study species is character, not plot.  Would you say that The Old Man and the Sea is “about” Santiago, or that Slaughterhouse-Five is “about” Billy Pilgrim?  Well, maybe in casual conversation, but not in a book review you were getting graded on.

I want a paper’s title to tell me about its plot.  By “plot”, I mean the questions the authors ask, and the way the experiments (or observations, or models) answer them.  That’s what a paper is “about” – the way The Old Man and the Sea is about a man’s struggle with his catch, his failing career, and his mortality (but I should stop before I venture further into literary criticism for which I am poorly qualified).  The “unified framework” and “seasonal life-history” titles tell me what questions the papers ask and answer.  It’s true that they don’t tell me which characters (species) they answer them with, but that’s not what I’m looking for in my first pass at a title.  And the swallowtail title?  It tells me nothing other than that the paper has to do with conservation of the swallowtail.  It mentions “questions”, but doesn’t say what they are; and it mentions “challenges” and “opportunities”, but these remain similarly shrouded.

A title that announces what species a paper is about doesn’t grab me, unless I already work on the species (or a similar one).  Who would pick up the swallowtail paper, except someone already interested in swallowtails or similar butterflies?  Is that the only audience the authors want?  What if the paper asks questions with implications for the conservation of mammals, or birds, or orchids?  Those audiences won’t be engaged.  With a title that announces what question a paper is about (and if possible, what the answer is), authors can recruit a broader audience.**  And readers can find out what species the question is asked with (and ponder whether the answer applies more broadly) at their leisure.


Should a paper title tell you what the paper is about?  Yes, but not the way Steve thinks.

Simon replies – I totally see where Steve is coming from with his point about plots and storylines and his references to Slaughterhouse-Five and the The Old Man and the Sea (although I could of course, somewhat tongue in cheek, riposte with a whole slew of titles such as Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield to name just a few.***) I think that I come at paper titles from two aspects of my academic profile.  First as an applied entomologist, I really do want to know if the paper is about the particular species or related group of species that I am working on – so referring back to Steve’s footnote about Tables of Contents (or even Current Contents)****, both of which I remember – yes, the title needs to be highly specific. Second, this is a debate I have had with conservation biologists working with vertebrate animals.

I am, as my Twitter handle indicates, an entomologist, and at the risk of being seen as narrowly partisan and parochial, means that I, and all other invertebrate zoologists, work on, until evidence is presented otherwise, the animals most relevant to ecology in general J. A paper on the movement ecology of zebras, for example, is unlikely to give me any insight into the migratory behaviour of aphids (of which there are more species than there are mammals), whereas an insect migration paper might give a mammal ecologist something to think about (incidentally I just realised that this helps Steve’s argument, in that an unwitting mammalogist might read an opaquely titled paper about insects). As a PhD student, when I first got interested in life history traits, I noticed that many vertebrate zoologists were publishing papers addressing concepts that were already well known to entomologists (e.g. Tinkle, 1969*****),  but not referring to those studies; so much so that I made rather a point of referring to vertebrate papers in my thesis whenever possible J

And in the spirit of Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch, third, (yes I know I said two things initially) is the point I made in my blog post about ‘scientific fashion’ and what we now call ‘click bait headlines’ (my example of one of my own titles in that post underlines this very neatly).  On the other hand, as Steve and other commentators have pointed out, there is a cost to both download and citation rates when titles of papers are very specific and lengthy (Letchford et al., 2015), which is surely why high impact and more general journals encourage the titles I abhor, and Steve favours. A new pet hate of mine, and something favoured by high impact general ecology journals, are titles with question marks: it is obvious that the answer is always going to be yes!

A thought (oops, now a fourth point – the Spanish Inquisition strikes again) that occurred to me as I was writing this and beginning to feel that I was succumbing to Steve’s cogent and compelling arguments, has to do with science communication.  We are being encouraged (some would say forced) to become ever more open access so that in theory  the whole world can read our outpourings (although I suspect that most proponents of Open Access are more concerned with their ability to instantly access data, than for the general public to access the ever increasing number of academic papers).  If this is the case, then surely, rather than use titles that are said to increase scientific citation rates, we should perhaps be using very explicit titles that will enable the general public to know what to expect?

To wrap up: Steve admits to being terrible at titles, and to Simon being a more experienced author and editor than he is.  And yet Simon admits that Steve’s arguments had him (ever so briefly) questioning his own.  So we’d like to turn this over to you.  Where do you stand on titles, character, and plot?  Please tell us in the Replies.

© Stephen Heard and Simon Leather August 27, 2019

*^I decided that I wouldn’t actually read any of the papers.  I wanted to react to titles as I would if I encountered them in a Table of Contents (anybody remember those?) or in a Google Scholar alert.

**^The obvious compromise is a title that reveals both of those things.  I like that sort of title, although the cost is they can get long, and there’s empirical data suggesting that they reduce citation rates.

***^Steve can’t help himself, and footnotes Simon’s half of the post (chutzpah!) to point out that saying that David Copperfield is a novel about David Copperfield is true, but not particular enlightening.  He doubles down on his argument, therefore, while wondering what the Dickens was up with that particular novelist’s penchant for character-based titles.

****^I felt that as this is a joint effort with Steve, parenthetical interjections were essential 🙂

*****^Incidentally, the title of that paper fits Steve’s point under his second – that the ideal paper title reveals both character and plot, although this one does it even better: “Grazing as a conservation management approach leads to a reduction in spider species richness and abundance in acidophilous steppic grasslands on andesite bedrock”.

Letchford, A., Moat, H.S. & Preis, T. (2015) The advantage of short paper titles. Royal Society Open Science, 2, 150266.

Tinkle, D.W. (1969) The concept of reproductive effort and its relation to the evolution of life histories of lizards. American Naturalist, 103, 501-516.


17 thoughts on “Should a paper title tell you what the paper is about? Yes, but not the way Simon/Steve thinks

  1. John Pastor

    On the whole, I agree with Simon. I had to read and parse the titles Steve likes several times before I could begin to understand them. They are much too abstract. They contain noun and adjective strings which separate the actors (subject and object) from the action (verb). The titles Simon likes are specific and raise an idea or issue in natural history, which is the foundation of ecology.

    May I also suggest that we banish cute titles? We all know what these are, so I won’t give examples. I would put titles that are questions in this category. I agree with Simon that the answer is always Yes, so why read further. Cute titles are of no help in indexing, so they therefore don’t help the authors. We should each be allowed only one cute title per life, to be used only when we receive a major award (which few of us will get) and then have to write a paper demonstrating why the award was bestowed.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Jon Walter

    On balance, I’m on team Steve here.

    I found it really interesting, though, how these preferences seem to reflect our orientations as scientists. Similar to Steve, I have worked on a number of different study systems and questions and have essentially no particular affinity (as far as my scientific interests go) for any particular group of organisms, ecosystem/biome/habitat, etc. So what motivates me to look at a paper is the concepts it touches on, which I think are better signaled by the kinds of titles Steve favors.

    But it also frustrates me when titles make a paper seem especially general, but when you read it the implications are rather more narrow, so maybe the best titles signify both concepts/questions and something about the study system.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jan Murie

    I tend to favor Simon’s perspective though agree with Steve that a title should also indicate the general thrust of the paper. I also dislike Simon’s disliked titles, not so much because they don’t mention the study organism(s), but because they appear to say what the paper is about but in such a general way that they are not all that helpful. As someone who has been retired for 20+ years and not active in publishing for the past 5, I maintain my interests in biology by receiving tables of contents on-line, and read the abstract or the paper of those that interest me. For journals like Ecology Letters and Conservation Biology I often check the abstract out of curiosity because I have no clue what the paper is about, usually because of the title being cutesy or so loaded with jargony noun modifiers that the meaning is obscured. Indeed, some titles appear to promise more significance and generality than they have–a discouraging trend that perhaps results from the chase for the IMPACT factor.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Daniel Weissman

    I generally agree with Simon. I have the same pet peeve as he does, with the added wrinkle that as a theorist, when I see these general titles I often get my hopes up that it’s a theory paper, because why else wouldn’t you specify the system?

    I agree with Steve though that I think the swallowtail paper’s title should specify the questions.

    So I would say that the title must state the question/result/topic and usually should also state the system. (This is true even in pure theory papers, e.g., my titles have included “…in adapting, spatially extended populations” and “…in large sexual populations with linear chromosomes”.)

    Liked by 2 people

  5. John

    Interesting post! I think I am voting for Steve here. My usual approach is to do something like the titles that Steve recommends, but put study species as keywords, so someone that glances at the title, abstract, and keywords would have a pretty good sense of both the plot and the characters, as it were. Granted, keywords aren’t the point of this blogpost, but that is my typical solution to this debate.


  6. jeffollerton

    Hmmmm, you both make excellent points: I like to know what a paper is about from the title (where a statement is better than a question in many cases) but also like to see the organisms mentioned (at some taxonomic resolution) and the ecological setting, because the study is “about” them and so often in EEB the findings are taxon- and setting-specific. So I actually think all three of those titles could have been improved.

    The subtitle of “Ecology and conservation of the British Swallowtail Butterfly, Papilio machaon britannicus: old questions, new challenges, and potential opportunities” is just a bit too vague and has been used in various formats rather a lot (including by me – I’m as guilty as anyone at writing less-than-perfect titles). For the other two, some mention of the taxon or the ecological context would have been better in my opinion – here are two suggestions:

    “Towards a unified framework for connectivity that disentangles movement and mortality in space and time: an insect herbivore in experimental landscapes”

    “Seasonal host life-history processes fuel disease dynamics at different spatial scales: swine fever wild boar and livestock”

    I have to confess that I’m a bit of a colon fan: they are very useful in titles (see what I did there?).

    Anyway, great post and great food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I’m a colon fan, too, Jeff; I think the vast majority of my titles have them. I like the way they can do General Question: Addressed Using This System, as you’ve shown, and other simiilar work-sharing as needed.

      However, all of my opinions on titles should be taken with a grain of salt, because I suck at them!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. jeffollerton

        They can also be used for questions of course, e.g. “A review of Prof. Stephen Heard’s paper titles: do they suck?”

        Abstract: We reviewed the titles of Prof. Stephen Heard’s titles and found that 90% were great and 10% were meh. Conclusion: his titles don’t suck, even if he thinks they do. Important contributory factor to lack of suckiness was the use of a colon.


        Liked by 1 person

  7. Brian McGill

    I’d like to suggest a compromise …

    I broadly agree with Steve that title should convey the main question or conclusion (the plot). But at GEB we use a structured abstract where 3 of the items are: Taxon, Location, Time period. This means in the abstract there will be a wordy multi-sentence section called “Aim” that you can skip at first, but this is immediately followed by a line with the word Taxon in bold followed by something like a species name, a general group (e.g. butterflies, birds) or something in between. The next line says “Location” in bold followed by a usually 3-5 word description (e.g. northeastern US” or “forests around the world”, and a third line with “Time period” in bold followed by something like 1970-2010 or “summer 2018” or “Quaternary”. This means that one can instantly pick out the taxonomic group, broad locality (e.g. tropical temperate, old world, new world) and how long the study was run. Because I agree with Simon that I hate it when these are either left out of or even just buried in the abstract.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. James Hartley

    Readers might like to see the chapter in my textbook ‘Academic writing and publishing’ (Routledge, 2008) where I discuss the advantages and disadvantages of 13 types of title…


  9. Pingback: Friday links: RIP C. S. “Buzz” Holling, when whistleblowers get it wrong, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  10. Peter Hambäck

    This seems to be a personal issue, as I find both approaches for titles useful. So, I don’t see the voting for Simon or Steve as insightful. The importance in either case is that the title provides a guidance for me as a reader. If I am writing a more theoretical paper where I discuss general concepts with no connection to a particular species then it makes sense to use one of Steve’s examples. If on the other hand I write a paper concerning the ecology of one of my favourite organisms then it makes sense to include information in the title that gives a hint to what the organisms are, as in Simon’s example. But I completely agree that colon’s solve a lot of things. On another personal note, I also dislike titles where the authors tries to be funny or connected to some cultural event such as song titles or the like. These titles are often culturally excluding, and not seldom misplaced. For instance, I will always remember the title of the paper ‘sex, drugs and herbivores’ but I never understood what it had to do with the paper.


  11. Peter Erwin

    A new pet hate of mine, and something favoured by high impact general ecology journals, are titles with question marks: it is obvious that the answer is always going to be yes!

    I found that kind of amusing, since Betteridge’s Law of Headlines asserts that the correct answer to a news headline that takes the form of a question is usually “No”[*], and since of the four papers I’ve written that had questions in the title, the answer for one was actually “No” (though not in Betteridge’s cynical sense) and the other three couldn’t take “Yes or No” answers (e.g., “How Large Are the Bars in Barred Galaxies?”). But maybe this is a cultural difference between ecology and astronomy….

    [*] “The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.”

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: a new title for my new book | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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