Monday, March 05, 2007

What's in a title?

Boston has two major daily papers, The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald. The Globe is the more stately broadsheet, whereas the Herald revels in being the sensational tabloid. My tastes tend strongly towards the Globe, though it sometimes seems more like The Boston Glob, but I do browse the Herald -- when I can get it for free. Yes, I'm a bit of a newspaper snob -- though nothing like James D. Watson, who would apparently put down the Herald (and by extension readers of that paper) on a daily basis when he was at Harvard (I got this first hand from his glasswasher -- who read a Herald daily).

While I have no love for the Herald's style & quality of journalism (e.g.: when the Globe fired a populist columnist for plagiarism, the Herald gleefully scooped him up), I do enjoy their screaming headlines. Short, pithy & fun -- though accuracy and fairness clearly aren't strong selection criteria.

The headlines in scientific journals and newswires tend to be long on long and short on punchy. Perhaps some is an urge to cram as many keywords as possible into the title, and perhaps some is a deliberate desire for dryness. While these titles often fit the purpose, it isn't uncommon to be able to rewrite one for more zazz, especially if you are emailing abstracts to a colleague rather than editing a journal.

Of course, one advantage of long and ponderous is a single possible meaning -- spell it out in detail, and nobody can misinterpret it accidentally -- or deliberately. Rarely can a scientific paper title or newsfeed item become a candidate for Jay Leno's headlines schtick, but it does happen. GenomeWeb is usually a good provider of useful news, but the other week I got a grin out of a headline that could be seen as a politically incorrect description of enlisting patients in their own cause
Sick Kids to Use GenoLogics' Geneus Software in Multi-Lab Stem Cell Research
. Of course, the item really refers to The Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto.

Other times, someone does put together a clever headline that grabs the eye -- usually with a clever name for a hypothesis
Retaliatory mafia behavior by a parasitic cowbird favors host acceptance of parasitic eggs
-- now there's a memorable piece of jargon!

However, I do not like titles to mislead.
The calorically restricted ketogenic diet, an effective alternative therapy for malignant brain cancer.

If you skip to the bottom of the abstract, it's even worse
This preclinical study indicates that restricted KetoCal(R) is a safe and effective diet therapy and should be considered as an alternative therapeutic option for malignant brain cancer.

It's an interesting idea (with precedent in the literature), but 'safe & effective'? The key term left out of the title is 'xenograft mice'. Only proven so if you are a xenografted mouse, a population for which a huge variety of 'cures' already exist. The abstract as a whole isn't bad, but I'll hardly be shocked if I start seeing ads touting the final sentence without qualification.

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