Yesterday, a PhD student asked me for advice on how to chose the title of his paper. He works on cicadas, but he noted that many papers that deal with a specific family / group don’t use the name of this group in the title, but rather phrase the problem more broadly. To give a random example, he mentioned the recent paper by Rösch et al., who work with leafhoppers, but chose to use insects in their title: “Landscape composition, connectivity and fragment size drive effects of grassland fragmentation on insect communities”. I thought about that question again today when reading a paper that just came out in Ecololgy, “Does relatedness matter? Phylogenetic density dependent survival of seedlings in a tropical forest”. Here, I actually needed to go to the end of the introduction to confirm that, like a felt 50% of all tropical forest studies, “tropical forest” means “Barro Colorado Island” – in title and abstract, not even the forest type was specified 1).
These are just two random examples, but I think I’m not indulging in undue generalizations when noting that this seems to reflect a wider trend of, lets phrase this positively, stressing the general aspects of our research. In part that may be due to our genuine desire to present our results in the widest possible context, but probably it’s also a reaction to editorial policies that don’t like to publish too specific research as well as to the necessity to attract attention and citations in an ever more crowded publication landscape.
My advice to the student was that, although I’m personally in favor of being specific, in a situation where one depends on publishing his papers it is probably better to go for the more general title if this can be scientifically justified. Looking at the broader picture, however, it’s a different story. Of course, the title should make sure that our research is not overlooked by persons that might be interested. However, there is a trade-off between attracting the right people, and attracting too many, and there is certainly an incentive to go for broader titles and stories (better chance in high-impact journals, more people that click on the paper) at the cost of deteriorating a public good, namely our time. I for once feel often nearly tricked when realizing that a paper that promised me “effects of environment and biotic interactions on beta-diversity across altitudinal gradients” is indeed looking at “differences in dung-beetle communities at four random sites in northern Italy” 2).
Thus, I’m wondering: are we really doing ourselves a favor with our general and often witty titles in ecology? Other fields in biology seem to do just fine with more specific titles like “Induction of intestinal stem cells by R-spondin 1 and Slit2 augments chemoradioprotection”, or “Microbial colonization influences early B-lineage development in the gut lamina propria”, just to pick two examples of this week’s issue of Nature.
1) Disclaimer: I didn’t choose these examples because they are bad papers, in fact, those are two papers I am likely to read because I’m interested in the topic
2) this case is made up, any resemblance with real titles is purely coincidental