Monthly Archives: August 2019

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 flicrk.com, 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 🙂 . 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 🙂

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.

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Talking the talk – my top tips for giving a good talk

I’m writing this a week before I’m due to give a talk at ENTO’19, the Royal Entomological Society’s annual meeting (I’m also on holiday in France, so don’t tell my wife that I’m working). I’ve been struggling a bit getting my talk prepared, probably because being on holiday makes it hard to concentrate on work, so to try and get in the right frame of mind I dug out the talk that I give to our PhD students about how to prepare for and give a presentation 😊 What I say in my talk, which is actually a demonstration, is that the pointers I give are transferable to all types of talk, be it a lecture to university students, a departmental seminar, a talk to a local natural history society, a garden club, a youth group or whatever. The general principles remain the same.  As this post is a result of me getting ready for a conference, I will, however, aim this at those of you giving conference talks for the first time, although I hope that some of you with more experience, will read this and add your thoughts in the comments section.

The first thing to remember, is that, as with writing a paper, you are telling a story.  You need a clear idea of where you are going, and in most cases, your audience also likes to know where you are planning on taking them.  It might seem trite and boring but a slide like this spelling out exactly what you are going to do in your talk, does no harm at all and also helps you get off to a good start, by allowing you to get your thoughts in order.

Tell them what you are going to tell them

 

So, what is your story?  How much time have you been allocated? Who are you talking to?  What do they know?  The more au fait your audience is with your subject area, the less time you will need to spend on your introduction and the more time you will need to spend on your results and what they mean.  On the other hand, if you are speaking to a more general audience you will need to have a relatively long introductory section in which you spell out why what you are talking about is important and worth listening to.

Keep your story straightforward, simple and linear.

You will note that I have put a bullet point called know your stuff.  By this I mean make sure you know something about the areas that your subject might impinge on.  You never know what someone might ask you, especially when you are talking to a general audience.  For example, whenever I am talking to natural history societies, garden clubs or Rotary Clubs, I always check what might be a problem in people’s gardens at that time of year, regardless of what subject my talk is about.  Entomologists are always being asked how to kill things. For a conference talk, you won’t have to be quite as broad as all that but do think about what sort of question someone not working in your discipline might come out with.  Going back to your timing and structuring, do remember to keep your conclusions (not discussion as you are not writing a paper), as simple and as short as you can.  Preferably one or two succinct bullet points, and whatever you do don’t start on to another slide.  My heart always sinks when I see a slide come up with the heading “Conclusions (1)”, because as sure as eggs is eggs, there will be another slide with the heading “Conclusions (2)”.  At a conference you are competing with a lot of other talks, you want to leave you audience with something that they can grasp easily and which when they leave the lecture theatre is firmly embedded in their minds. The more conclusion points you make the more confusion you sow, you want them to be talking about your work in the bar afterwards, not the number of slides that you had 😊

Avoid big blocks of text, even in lectures; anything that gets in the way of your story and makes it harder for your audience to understand what you are saying is not a good thing.

Not what your audience wants to see

In the same vein, and also something you should avoid, even in a conventional lecture setting, but definitely in a conference talk, are tables, no matter how simple you think they are.  Anything that needs the speaker to go through line by line, unless it is in a classroom situation where you are explaining the workings of a calculation, has no place in a talk.   Avoid tables, even simple ones, use figures instead.  People can absorb figures much more easily than they can text.  Keep thigs simple for your audience, don’t get in the way of your story by making things too complex.

Face your audience, speak up and make eye contact. I don’t mean find someone in the audience and stare lovingly into their eyes; scan the whole audience so they feel that you are speaking to them personally. Keep looking at the audience, don’t look at the ground.  Don’t use pointers* – they encourage you to turn your back on your audience, they reveal how nervous you are and if your slides are well designed you shouldn’t need them.

Use PowerPoint (or whatever you use for presentations) to point it out for you. Absolutely no need for a pointer, laser or otherwise.

You need to feel comfortable to give a good talk, and this can be affected by what you are wearing.  The degree of formality expected, will, to a certain extent, depend on your audience and your seniority.  I have written about this before, so will not repeat myself here, but my take-home message is to feel comfortable in yourself and if that means dressing smartly then so be it.

You may be wondering about how to remember what you are going to talk about, do you need notes? Fortuitously, this brings me on to aide memoires and hands and feet.  A good talk is a performance.  I am, like many scientists, (or is it just entomologists?), an introvert.  To give a good talk means engaging with people and projecting your personality.

A good talk is a performance.  Use those hands!

A good talk is a performance. This means that you may have to exaggerate parts of your personality, you need to be outgoing, voluble and perhaps even funny 🙂  I wrote about the dangers of unscripted humour last year; unscripted is the key word here.  To give a good talk, you need to feel at ease; as well as dressing comfortability and being confident about your story, you need to be able to tell your story without using notes.  Notes steal your spontaneity by encouraging you to read from them, they aid and abet introverts by giving you an excuse to look at them instead of the audience. Notes should be avoided. This is where rehearsal and acting comes to the fore.  I have been giving professional talks since my first disastrous PhD Departmental upgrading seminar in 1979.  I was nervous, ill-prepared, unrehearsed and, as result of a lunchtime drinking session to calm my nerves, slightly drunk.  Since that fateful day I have run through my talks at least five times.  When I say run through I mean I give my talk, albeit to an empty room, exactly as I am going to give it to a real audience, I use arm movements, I stride around the ‘stage’, I speak as loudly as I will on the day.  Treat your practice talk as a rehearsal but not as a ‘by rote’ script, otherwise you run the chance of losing the spontaneity factor. Your choreography and rehearsal should be the only aide memoires you need, although I do find it useful to have a little hint on a slide to tell me, for example, that the next slide is a picture, in this case a red bullet point.  Doing a proper, out loud performance also makes sure that you will keep to your time limit.

Two of the slides from my, because I have been on holiday, very under-rehearsed ENTO19 talk 🙂

Use your hands to emphasise points, there is nothing wrong with a bit of arm waving – I do it all the time as you can see from the title pictures 🙂 I also think, unless you arc anchored by a fixed microphone, to walk around a bit.  Movement adds life to your presentation.  If you just stand behind the lectern in the dark and fixed to the spot, your audience might as well listen to a recorded voice over.  Add personality to your talk by being an active participant although too much running around the stage and excessive arm waving might make your audience think that you are attempting take flight and prove distracting 🙂

Something to bear in mind if you are feeling apprehensive, is that the people in your audience have chosen to come to your talk because they are interested in what you are going to say. They have not, well I hope not, come to hurl abuse at you or laugh at your performance.  They are a self-selected set of fans, they have come to be informed and entertained, and, if you are confident, have a good story to tell and are well rehearsed, your talk should be fun for you and them.

And my final bit of advice. We all know when we have been at a good talk.  What was it that made Dr X’s talk so good, what did she do that you can ‘steal’ to make your talk even better.  Conversely, we have all been to bad talks, what made that talk by Professor Y so awful, what did he do that sent you to sleep or made you cringe?  Do you have any of those bad habits?  If so, brutally excise them from your next performance.

 

Post script

Don’t worry if you feel nervous before giving a talk, I still do after 40 years of standing up and talking at conferences and other venues.  A bit of adrenaline helps give your talk that ‘real’ feel.

 

*I’m not the only one who hates pointers, see this post by Steve Heard

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Pick & Mix 35 – a real mixture from art to science

When tree planting actually damages ecosystems – interesting article from Kate Parr and Caroline Lehmann

What natural smaller changes in climate have done to human civilisations should really make us worry about what lies ahead

Studying the history of science is more than the interpretation of ‘landmark’ texts but must involve following ideas in circulation- studying both the people speaking on behalf of the dead scientists and the consumers of that information. Mendel as an example in this blog from the John Innes Centre.

Urbanisation of water courses has detrimental effects on damselflies

Mating damselflies from Ray Cannon’s excellent site

This recent paper suggests that plant sucking bugs feeding on plants (in this case citrus trees) where the levels of neonicitinoid insecticides are too low to kill the pests, can instead kill beneficial insects that feed on the honeydew produced by the pests

Do we realize the full impact of pollinator loss on other ecosystem services and the challenges for any restoration in terrestrial areas? Interesting article from Stefanie Christmann

Collaborating with artists to improve science communication

On a similar line, Peter Pany and colleagues at the University of Vienna, have come up with an idea to cure plant blindness or as they put it “to encourage plant vision

This artist’s oil paintings of women are considered the most realistic in the World

 

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All Among the Barley – an evocative and disturbing read

Readable Hardy

A summer between the wars

Rural lass recalls

I wrote this haiku immediately after reading Melissa Harrisons latest novel All Among the Barley, and tweeted it to her to let her know the admiration I felt for what I think is, to date, her magnum opus.  I hesitate to use the word enjoy, because, although this is a magnificent piece of writing, it is, in my opinion, an uncomfortable journey for the reader. Yes, my haiku is an adequate description

Melissa Harrison, All Among the Barley, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018

 

of the book, in as much as we spend a year in early 1930s rural England with the memories of Edith Mather, the sensitive and intelligent, teenage daughter of smallholder George Mather. Set as it is, the rhythm and texture of the farming year pervade the book but this in no way overwhelms the reader or the plot; it is an essential part of the narrative. The writing as a whole is lyrical, especially so when referring to the natural world.

 

“The bluebells would come out in Hulver Wood and our bees would wake and begin to forage; the grass would grow tall in the hay meadows and be mown, the peas would blossom once more and become sweet. And the cornfields would be green, then grow tall and turn golden; and so would pass the next year, and the next.”

 

It is hard to review this book without creating spoilers, so I am going to be deliberately opaque, but hopefully give you enough information to make you want to pick up, or buy a copy and immerse yourself in this lost world, that Melissa has stunningly recreated.  My arithmetic places the story in 1933 or 1934, a time of great upheaval in Europe and the UK. The rise of the unions, a deep distrust of foreigners, be they incomers or immigrants, overlaid on the, to some, fresh memories of the Great War, the insidious rise of fascism, and, despite burgeoning women’s rights,  a still, overtly patriarchal society, are the bricks on which this book is built.  The story is based firmly around the Mather family and Edie’s interactions with her recently married sister, her brother, her grandparents, her long-suffering mother and her prone to drunkenness father.  Add to this mix dark hints of witchcraft and a less than stable deceased grandmother, an unrequited relationship between Edie’s’ mother and the farm’s horseman, an overly amorous friend of her brother, a tincture of racism, the arrival of Constance, a liberated lady journalist from London, and you have the makings of a hugely compelling and gripping tale.

All is not as it seems and the twists and turns of this deceptively simple story will keep you by turns, charmed, horrified, puzzled and perhaps at times, in tears. I defy you to guess the ending.  It caught me totally by surprise.  I can only reiterate what I said at the beginning of this review, it may not be a comfortable read, but it is a magnificent piece of writing that deserves a huge audience.  I recommend it to you most strongly.

 

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