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November 21, 2016 / jpschimel

Titles: statements, conclusions, or questions?

A title’s purpose is to inform you quickly and effectively enough about a paper to allow you to decide whether to invest more time in reading it—at least to check the abstract to get confirmation. Most titles are statements that describe the work and/or results; for example consider titles like:

  • Separating cellular metabolism from exoenzyme activity in soil organic matter decomposition
  • Sensitivity of coral recruitment to subtle shifts in early community succession
  • Direct benefits and indirect costs of warm temperatures for highelevation populations of a solitary bee

The challenge for a good title is  to give you enough information on what the paper is about without getting overloaded with a mass of technical terms that overwhelms a reader. I periodically get asked, however, what I think about titles that either state the conclusion or that ask a question. There has been extensive discussion over these ideas over the years, but I am not going to make any pronouncement on “thou shalt (or shalt not)…” First, I’ve used both approaches in my career and I prefer to limit how frequently I’m a hypocrite. Second, though, and more importantly, just because I wrote a book on writing doesn’t give me license to offer proclamations of personal opinion as “rules” that everyone must follow.

Fundamentally all questions of whether you should or should not do something in writing come down to one question: Does it enhance communication? Does something improve the reader’s understanding or ease in gaining information or insight? If it does, clearly, you should do it. If rather, it hinders communication, equally clearly, you should not. If it  neither hinders nor enhances, but just makes a point in a different way, then it is a matter of personal taste and style—do what you like.

Conclusions as Titles

As an author, it’s your job to be self-critical and to challenge your own conclusions. As reviewers and readers our job is the same. By offering a conclusion in the title, you may prejudice the reader or imply you are trying to sell us a conclusion (rather than asking a question and allowing the conclusion to develop for us). So readers may suspect your motives and objectivity—that undermines communication. Thus, there is some risk in conclusion-as-title papers.

But that doesn’t mean they are all bad and should never be used. The flip side of the argument is that a title should tell us what the paper is about—and what does that better than just telling us the conclusion? So when there is a clear, interesting, and inarguable conclusion, why not just state it? Might readers then not bother reading the paper? After all, they got the story just skimming the title. I wouldn’t worry about that—if readers care so little about the topic that they won’t go further than the title, they probably won’t read the paper anyhow but maybe now you’ve still slid a useful tidbit into their brain. That’s a victory. I looked at the recent web pages for Ecology and for Ecology Letters, two leading journals in the field, to pull some recent examples. Let’s  see where they work or not.

“Large, connected floodplain forests prone to flooding best sustain plant diversity.”
   Johnson et al. (2016; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.1556)

The problem I have with this title is what is implied but unstated: these floodplain forests “best” sustain diversity. But better than what? Every other ecosystem type on the entire planet? After all, “best” is the superlative adjective. Thus, the problem I have with this title isn’t that it’s a statement, but that it is unclear.

“Predators suppress herbivore outbreaks and enhance plant recovery following hurricanes.”
   Spiller et al. (2016; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.1523)

Here, my problem is that “herbivore” can cover anything from aphids to elephants. An “elephant outbreak”? Well maybe not. In fact, this paper discusses a moth outbreak and a lizard predator. Would I have liked to know at least part of that? Yes. Would this have been better as “Predators suppress outbreaks of insect herbivores and enhance plant recovery following hurricanes”? I think so. If I know the herbivores are insects, I may not care what the predators are—but I can guess they are not lions and tigers! Maybe the authors didn’t want to generalize moths to “insects,” but they could have gotten technical and called them “lepidopteran herbivores.” They were clearly trying to stay short and pithy. That, however, is the challenge in writing a good title: give us enough information to understand what the paper is about without bogging us down in detail. What is the right balance?

“Naive tadpoles do not recognize recent invasive predatory fishes as dangerous.”
   Hettyey et al. (2016; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.1532).

This I think is better. It frames the story and makes it clear what the message is—though I found the opening word “naïve” a little odd. The image of a naïve tadpole conjures something from the Far Side cartoon—but with this, the authors were assuming that anyone looking at the title knows what “naïve” means in this context, which is harder when it’s the first word. Thus, I would argue that this one suffers from a minor case of the “curse of knowledge” in which the author may assume readers know too much.

“Mycorrhizal fungi and roots are complementary in foraging within nutrient patches”
   Cheng et al. (2016; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.1514)

Here is one that I think manages to be both short & pithy while still offering enough information that I get a pretty complete story. OK, maybe it’s because I’m a soil biologist. But any ecologist should know (or be able to figure out) what mycorrhizae, roots, and nutrient patches are.

In going through “statement as title” papers, I think authors taking this approach were usually aiming for short and sharp and may therefore be prone to leaving out information. That forces a reader to go to the abstract to figure out what the title means. Ouch. I want to read the title to figure out whether to look at the abstract—I shouldn’t have to read the abstract to figure out whether to look at the title! If you go this route, therefore, be careful to ensure the message is as complete and clear as you can.

So then I went to my own C.V. to check how frequently I’ve been a co-author on papers whose titles are statements, it’s 14 out of over 150. Here are a few:

  • Long-term warming restructures Arctic tundra without changing net soil carbon storage.
  • Invasive Grasses Increase N Availability in California Grassland Soils
  • Drying/rewetting cycles mobilize old C from deep soils from a California annual grassland

Each of these offered a simple and clean story, one that could be captured in a simple declarative statement. So why not do so routinely? Well, in the 130+ other papers I’ve co-authored stories were more complex or we just came up with something different and never questioned whether we should try a conclusion title.

Questions as Titles

How about questions as titles? Some people dislike them, but I think the question titles readers mostly dislike are “Yes/No” questions. Readers are likely to assume that you know the answer is “yes” so why bother to pose it as a question? This may feel “precious.” Consider:

Can we predict ectotherm responses to climate change using thermal performance curves and body temperatures?
Sinclair et al. (DOI: 10.1111/ele.12686)

I don’t like that title. As a reader, I’d assume that the answer is “yes,” but I don’t learn that much from the title itself. I’m not even sure the answer is “yes.” And it it’s “no” then I am sure there must be a deeper story that the title isn’t letting on. Let’s look at another “Yes/No” question title:

“Does habitat unpredictability promote the evolution of a colonizer syndrome in amphibian metapopulations?”
   Cayuea et al. (2016; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.1489)

Again, I can guess that the answer is “yes” but I don’t know that—after all, the authors could have entitled this “Habitat unpredictability promotes the evolution of a colonizer syndrome in amphibian metapopulations” and then I would know the story, but here I’m unsure. To me, that isn’t effective communication, and that’s my criterion. But what about question titles that aren’t simple Yes/No questions? Consider the following paper by Hefley et al. (2016; Ecology Letters DOI: 10.1111/ele.12671).:

“When can the cause of a population decline be determined?”

That’s a question I want to know the answer to. This title develops my curiosity while offering a strong sense of what the story is about. This is a question whose answer is likely to be both interesting and important for ecologists. I think that title is effective communication. Here’s another that does something similar:

Why do trees die? Characterizing the drivers of background tree mortality
   Das et al. (2016; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.1497)

Again, that poses a question that is very likely to draw an ecologist’s interest. Most trees can live a long time and survive harsh conditions. So why do they eventually kick the bucket and die? Again, that engages my curiosity but then in the second part gives me some sense of where the paper is going. Nice.

So, from my deep and scholarly analysis of titles (OK, my 20 minutes of skimming journal web pages) my first cut conclusion is that it’s probably best to avoid Yes/No type questions for titles—readers are likely to be sure that you know the answer, but are holding out on them. Thus, I think such titles are not likely to grab a reader’s curiosity and aren’t likely to offer a clearly informative story. If the question has a simple “yes” answer, the title can probably be better written as a statement.

Having drawn that conclusions, let me test my hypothesis against several papers I’ve been a co-author on where we used a question-based title:

  • Cold-season production of CO2 in Arctic soils: can laboratory and field estimates be reconciled through a simple modeling approach?
  • Different NH4+–Inhibition patterns of soil CH4 consumption: a result of distinct CH4 oxidizer populations across sites?
  • Does adding microbial mechanisms of decomposition improve soil organic matter models? A comparison of four models using data from a pulsed rewetting experiment.

Each of these does ask a Yes/No question—so am I making a liar out of myself? I don’t think so. The first two pose the question after framing the issue, rather than as the entire title. The last one asks the question but then also makes it clear how it would be answered and what the main story of the paper really is.

The key is whether the question enhances reader understanding of what the work is about and their engagement with it. I’ll stay with my conclusion that simple Yes/No questions are probably best avoided.

Clever Titles: plays on language

A final issue here is “clever” titles, where there are plays with language. My first message here is to keep in mind that some readers, particularly those who are not native English speakers, may not catch the language play. Then, your cleverness likely undermines communication. And that is bad.

For example, consider the title of a paper I handled recently for Soil Biology & Biochemistry. The original title was:

 “When protection leads to degradation: impacts of protected colonial birds on soil microbial communities.”

This was a nice paper, but consider the initial clause: “When protection leads to degradation…” When you first read that, it means nothing. I suggested turning it around: “Impacts of protected colonial birds on soil microbial communities: when protection leads to degradation.” Now, with the straight information as the main title, the meaning of the subtitle becomes obvious—protecting the birds leads to soil degradation. It still has the interesting “flip” idea that doing something good is actually bad, which generates curiosity, and so to my mind, enhances communication. If the authors had just deleted that text entirely there would be less sense of the story to engage a potential reader—it would just be about the effects of colonial birds on soil communities. But how many of us would care about that? Here’s another from Ecology:

“Hunting on a hot day: effects of temperature on interactions between African wild dogs and their prey.”
   Creel et al. (2016; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.156)

I think the opening clause here doesn’t add much, but it does add enough to be useful. It’s short enough that a reader gets past it very quickly and the terms “hunting” and “hot day” resonate closely with the heavier and more technical terms in the main clause “effects of temperature” and “interactions between African wild dogs and their prey.” The short preamble clause adds a little more sense of what the story is about and does so with lighter language.

“Elephants in the understory: opposing direct and indirect effects of consumption and ecosystem engineering by megaherbivores.”
   Coverdale et al. (2016; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.1557)

In this one I like the sound and image of elephants in the understory. It flows prettily. And it provides a gentle start to what then becomes a heavy and technical main clause. It helps a reader see the issue and it does it with nice language. I think that is good communication.

To wrap up, do not be clever just to be clever or because you came up with an expression that you like. It’s all about the reader and whether you help or hinder their understanding and appreciation of what you offer. A title should offer enough guidance on what the paper is about to be able to make a reasonable choice as to go further and either read the abstract or the whole paper. As with all other issues of communication, the question is whether it improves the reader’s experience and makes their job easy. Remember my first Principle (can I call that the Principal Principle?): As the author, it is your job to make the reader’s job easy. That applies just as much to titles as to any other part of the text.









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