Insert Clever Title Here

March 07, 2016

This article originally appeared in BRIT’s former newsletter publication, Iridos, Issue 20(2) 2009.

“Hell — is sitting on a hot stone reading your own scientific publications.” ~ Erik Ursin, fish biologist (in Sand-Jensen 2007)

One of my favorite journal articles is a little number called “How to write consistently boring scientific literature” (Oikos 116:723–727. 2007). Penned by Kaj Sand-Jensen at the University of Copenhagen, this piece is a glib editorial about technical writing…that was somehow published and promulgated by a technical writing source. (Brilliant!)

Sand-Jensen complains that current science has lost its charm in recent years, dispensed with its sense of humor. We used to write with flavor, he says, with life. Not anymore. Somewhere along the line, colloquialisms became a no-no. “Unprofessional!” we were told. And now dry and lifeless prose is the norm.

But a pocket of resistance has survived, souls and humor intact, and some of these are the authors who contribute to Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. Looking back through the archives of the journal one finds papers whose titles exude life and character, often sprinkled in among the less lively. In fact, non-boring titles are the cleverest of all guerrilla tactics in the anti-yawn movement because, really, what is a title? What does a title actually do?

Well, in the broadest sense, titles are everything. They set the tone. They underscore the message, the emphasis of the paper. They are the worm, dangling there on top of it all, hoping to ensnare a big, juicy, literate fish. They are the first impression! And good titles, most likely, speak to the cleverness of article contents.

But titles are also harshly scrutinized. They are often listed in multiple publications, both print and online, and are therefore subject to the rigors of public relations standards and judgment.

But if an author is clever enough, he can still show his feelings, his humor, and a bit something more than just words on paper. Through a carefully crafted title, a writer can summarize both his intent and his opinion in a mere line or two.

At times, all it takes to spice things up is well-placed punctuation. (Consider Nicolletia occidentalis in Baja California!” or “A cypress in Jeff Davis County, Texas?”.) Aiming carefully, an author can then follow up former titles and play off his own riffs (“Another juniper in Jeff Davis County, Texas? We’re not convinced”). Simple alliteration will often improve an otherwise stuffy subject (“Published illustrations of Penstemon hirsutus: magnificence, malformation and misidentification”). Other times, a subtle confrontational note can be the hook that grabs (“Orthodon vs. Mosla”this time it’s personal).

A title can show mere confusion (“Thomas, Townsend, or Townshend—What was T.S. Brandegge’s name?”) or outright despair (“What is the writer of a flora to do?”). It can be grandiose in scope (“Amur honeysuckle: its ascent, decline, and fall”), apocryphal (“The impending naturalization of Pistacia chinensis in East Texas”), or even biblical (“Commandments for communication”). Titles can contribute some literary philosophy (“The Gerbera complex: to split or not to split”) or esoterica (“Cuscuta—the strength of weakness”). Poetry, though rare, is greatly appreciated (“By any other name…”). And, just as with everything else in this modern world, sex sells (“Sex and the angiosperms—another proposition”).

Now, be honest. Did any of the above titles make you curious as to the contents of the rest of the paper? I’m guessing that most of you answered “Yes” even if somewhat begrudgingly. But that’s good! This means that the efforts of the guerrilla science writer are not in vain.

If you’re really curious and want more title excitement, you can go here and click on “Biodiversity Heritage Library.” The title is just the beginning. Imagine what awaits!

*Some article titles have been modified slightly for humor’s sake.

Leave A Response

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Related Articles

BRIT Aerial Surveys – New Projects Up in the Air

When we look at something from a different perspective, we usually see something new—something we might have not seen before or something familiar seen in a new context. Discovery of the new is precisely why we’ve recently started to explore ways to look at landscapes and ecosystems from a new perspective—namely, from the air. With very simple and affordable components such as helium balloons, kites, and point-and-shoot cameras, we’ve been able to capture great aerial images of the BRIT campus. And with some rather sophisticated software (details below) we were able to analyze the images to create a number of products that are valuable to our ongoing understanding of landscapes and ecosystems. Hasn’t this already been done? When we first posted our aerial survey imagery online through Face...
Read More >

Aerial Survey Resources – For Beginners

This page is constantly evolving as a resource for conducting aerial surveys. At this point, it’s not meant to be comprehensive or provide everything you need to get started. It’s just to give you a general framework for the process and to point you to other resources. If you have questions or suggestions, please comment below. The blog post describing BRIT’s initial aerial surveys is at and provides a bit more background about some of the reasons BRIT is conducting these surveys. Starting a new aerial survey project generally involves the following steps: Purchase/gather/make survey kit Perform survey Process images Survey Kit One of the best places to get started is at Public Lab ( ). This group provides a wealth of...
Read More >

Mary Sophie on the Move: Busted Freezer Gets Relocated, Repurposed

By Research Associate Will Godwin, PhD Adaptive reuse or re-purposing has become a popular method to achieve green or sustainable design. It even extends into the aesthetics of interior design through shabby-chic and the more avant-garde, lab-chic. But reuse is not a recent idea. It has a long history in the natural world. Charles Darwin was the first to call it “pre-adaptation.” By the 1980’s the term was adjusted to “exaptation” primarily to avoid connotations of premeditation. Exaptation happens when a structure or behavior that was useful for one function is suddenly and serendipitously useful in a new way. Animals and plants have been finding fortuitous new uses for stuff they already had for millions of years. Often it gave the survivors that unexpected edge required to survive. The...
Read More >

A 54-Year Celebration

The Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas ( JBRIT ) is celebrating its 54th year of continuous publication. It all started when Lloyd H. Shinners —a member of the Southern Methodist University (SMU) faculty and a prolific botanical researcher and writer who wanted to edit his work and the work of others—founded and published the first two issues of Sida, Contributions to Botany on November 23, 1962. He named the journal for a genus ( Sida ) of yellow-flowered plants of the mallow or cotton family (Malvaceae), distributed throughout the world and especially common in Texas. Shinners served as editor and publisher until his death in 1971, after which William F. Mahler, professor of botany at SMU, inherited the journal and continued to edit and privately publish it. Barney Lips...
Read More >