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Provocative Paper Titles

24th August 2021
By Guest Author

By Dr Leslie McIntosh, Founder and CEO of Ripeta, and Dr Hilde van Zeeland, Applied Linguist at Writefull.

At Ripeta, we develop tools to automatically scan manuscripts for key scientific quality indicators and provide feedback on ways to improve research reporting. We assess, design, and disseminate practices and measures to improve the reproducibility of, and trust in science with minimal burden on scientists.

In what can often feel like a sea of dry scientific writing, provocative titles in scientific research papers stand out. Occasionally, legitimate scientists conducting good research will attempt more humorous titles. Sometimes, they even land! 

To highlight the joy of a jaunty paper title, our friends at Writefull, providers of AI-based research proofreading services, have developed a fun app to generate scientific paper titles based on article abstracts. When pondering paper titles, I wondered whether a disconnect between a paper’s abstract and its title could indicate a potential need to inspect the article for possible trust issues, and what better way to investigate it than to use their app!

And so, without further ado, or indeed statistical significance, I present three articles: 

Article 1: A (very not) scintillating title 

Human Created Title

An analysis of form and function of a research article between and within publishers and journals

Writefull’s Computer-Generated Title 
  • Research Article Heading Organization and Forms for Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing: A Case Study from a Single Institution
  • A Heading Form and Function Analysis for Machine Learning
  • Research Article Heading Form and Function Analysis Using Rhetorical Functions

Picking an enticing article we just published at Ripeta about research article heading and subheadings, I wanted to see how close our paper name compared to those generated by a computer. Based on the alternative possibilities, the similarities of titles reassured me that we accurately framed our paper as dryly as possible, keeping in line with scientific naming conventions. Quite an interesting article when training machine learning algorithms to parse and categorize articles. However, definitely not click-bait.

An image of a paper entitled "An analysis of form and function of a research article between and within publishers and journals" on an iPad screen

Article 2: A title from an author trying to be clever (apologies Dr. Luke)

Human Created Title

Where there’s smoke there’s money: Tobacco industry campaign contributions and U.S. Congressional voting

Writefull’s Computer-Generated Title Possibilities
  • Voting Behaviors of Representatives from the Tobacco Industry Political Action Committees in the United States: A Cross-Sectional Analysis
  • The Effectiveness of Campaign Contributions for Tobacco-Related Legislators in the United States: A Cross-Sectional, Multilevel Model
  • Voting Behavior of Tobacco Industry Political Action Committees

A search in Dimensions shows over 160 articles alluding to the proverb ‘Where there’s smoke’ in the title. Not that uncommon. Maybe even overused? From personal experience, Dr. Doug Luke enjoys using more flavourful titles for his papers and talks to make statistics sound as interesting as it really is. The generated titles compare favourably to the original segment after the academic colon.

An image of a Dimensions screen showing a paper entitled "Where there's smoke there's money: Tobacco industry campaign contributions and U.S. Congressional voting" on an iPad screen

Article 3: A provocative title (from a retracted article)

Human Created Title

The Safety of COVID-19 Vaccinations—We Should Rethink the Policy

Writefull’s Computer-Generated Title Possibilities
  • Vaccine Safety and Risk Assessment for mRNA Vaccine COVID-19
  • Vaccination of COVID-19: A Review of the Safety of Vaccines
  • Safety Evaluation of COVID-19 Vaccines: The mRNA Vaccination versus the Number Needed for Vaccination

The problem with this title is the authors put in a recommendation into the title, which plays on the boundaries of scientific cultural norms. In fact the term ‘rethink the policy’ appears in only a handful of article titles. More troublesome is that the recommendation in the title does not logically follow from the paper, as also reflected by the auto-generated titles given by Writefull. Before even considering the fraughtful methods of the paper, we know the title and substance of the paper don’t agree with each other.

Provocative paper titles remind us that, first, scientists are able to laugh at themselves a little, and second that the title itself could have a bearing on the readership and thus the exposure of the science within. Could there be a relationship between paper titles and trust? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Tweet us @ripetaReview.

An image of a paper entitled "The Safety of COVID-19 Vaccinations—We Should Rethink the Policy" on an iPad screen

Want to try your hand at the title generation app? Go to the Writefull Title Generator and let us know what you found @Writefullapp and @ripetaReview.

At Ripeta we will keep exploring and automating checks to make better science easier. To learn more, head to the Ripeta website or contact us at info@ripeta.com.

Leslie Ripeta - Headshot

Dr. Leslie McIntosh
CEO and Founder, Ripeta

Leslie is the founder and CEO of Ripeta and a researcher passionate about mentoring the next generation of data scientists. She is active in the Research Data Alliance, grew the St. Louis Machine Learning and Data Science Meetup to over 1500 participants, and was a fellow with a San Francisco based VC firm. She recently concluded as the Director of Center for Biomedical Informatics (CBMI) at Washington University in St. Louis where she led a dynamic team of 25 individuals facilitating biomedical informatics services. Dr. McIntosh has a focus of assessing and improving the full research cycle and making the research process reproducible.

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