Should paper titles in ecology be more specific?

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 Rรถsch 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.

This is not the standard in ecology ;) - from

A bit less specific might have done the job as well ๐Ÿ˜‰ – from

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

6 thoughts on “Should paper titles in ecology be more specific?

  1. Hi Flo. Very good points raised. You are right that the over-generalisation of titles does seem to be something that dominates the ecological sciences. I might be a bit draconian in my feelings but I do feel that this is an example of poor scientific practice. I have no problem with authors pointing out the general consequences of their findings in the abstract and the discussion but, unless the study is a large-scale experiment or meta-analysis, I feel that title should quite clearly state the taxanomic group and study sites.

    However, this does open up the extra problem about how to treat theoretical studies. By their very nature these studies are often searching for general principles but, to do so, they usually have to start with a very specific model of the system. Quite often we might see here with a paper with something like ‘factor x causes chaotoic population dynamics’ in the title but then I read ahead and find that the authors needed to invoke a very peculiar version of deterministic population model to achieve said dynamics. In such a case I might prefer the (albeit much less snappy) title that has something like ‘3 species Lotka-Volterra competition model with fractally varying climate results in chaotic population dynamics’. Not that I am saying that theoretical ecology papers are better or worse than their field-based counterparts, but, like the example you provided, I think theoretical paper titles should at least try and specify the broad family of model they use.

    Interestingly, in the (admittedly few) papers I have read in Physics, I have tended to see more general titles in lower-impact journals and then bizarrely specific titles in the likes of Nature and Science.

    • Hi Joe,

      I totally agree, theoretical studies are as culpable of generalization as empirical studies. Theoretical or empirical, it would certainly be possible to choose more specific titles (I would actually prefer the second title you gave), but I guess the (justified?) feeling is that those would make the paper less read or more difficult to publish.

      I’m not sure about the physics case, I think it depends a lot on the subdiscipline, it seems to me experimental work uses fairly specific titles, while some softer theoretical fields, specially when they overlap with complex systems science, have also a certain tradition of grandeur regarding the titles.

  2. Indeed it is a common problem in ecological (or general scientific) literature. However i believe that it is the authors personal right to give a meaningful title. And people like to see their research in the big picture. I’m also pretty sure that there is some kind of correlation between a more general title and the number of citations (in the way that it is easier to find your article).
    Furthermore i really enjoy the numerous papers who managed to pass a funny and sometimes unusual title through the reviewing process. For instance many articles around pollination refer to Shakespeare (“too bee or not to be”) ๐Ÿ™‚ There was even a list of the best article titles somewhere…

    As a suggestion:
    We should rather request a more consistent and clear tagging by the authors (by using the articles keywords). Why not make it a general rule to include some kind of information of the spatial scale as keyword for every article (for instance “West-Africa” or “Galapagos” and so on.) ?

    • Hi,

      of course everyone is free to title and write whatever he likes, I’m taking the same right for me after all. And I agree that a broader title might result in more cites (and access to higher impact journals), that is why people do it

      It seems obvious though that this only works if your title is broader than the average title. Citations are a null sum game, you can’t create more citations for everyone with more general titles. Thus, if everyone goes towards broader titles, we might just end up in an arms race where, similar to a peacock, papers have to carry around a lot of useless feathers to look bigger than they really are.

      I like your suggestion with the metadata, if we would have a system of quantitative metadata where things like location, studysite, hypothesis tested, maybe even assumptions etc. are recorded, one could automatically visualize this in an rss feed or alike, individually adjusted to what one finds relevant. Journal editors: this would be a lot more helpful than adding these “research highlights” and “graphical abstracts”.

      Fun part: if you enjoy funny Shakespeare titles, have a look at this ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Hat dies auf Cornelius Senf rebloggt und kommentierte:
    Interesting thoughts by Florian Harting on too generalized paper titles in ecology. Certainly an issue that is common in remote sensing as well.

  4. Pingback: Friday links: the Silwood story, advice for (and from) grad students, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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