Field of Science

Writing Science: The Short and Sweet of It, Titles and Tweets

We're thinking about writing short bits of science with style and precision: titles and tweets, abstracts and blog posts.

What makes a great title? One theory (here) suggests great book titles should be PINC ("pink"): make a promise, create intrigue, identify a need, and/or describe content.

Are there other things that titles should do in a science piece (be it blog post, tweet or scholarly article)? How would you prioritize these for different audiences, different genres?

Should an abstract tease? Is there a place for wit in the formal scientific literature? When? How? Who? Is it OK for someone of Paul Wender's stature to indulge?


Writing assignment #3
Write 5 tweets pointing colleagues to recent articles in the field (give me title/ref for the article); In 50-100 words comment on the construction of your tweet in light of the criteria you have developed for a good science tweet.

Writing Prompt for the day
Write a series of possible titles for the abstracts below. When you get stuck, move to the next abstract! Five minutes. (Click on the links to see the title the authors chose.)

A. Human infants face the formidable challenge of learning the structure of their social environment. Previous research indicates that infants have early-developing representations of intentional agents, and of cooperative social interactions, that help meet that challenge. Here we report five studies with 144 infant participants showing that 10- to 13-month-old, but not 8-month-old, infants recognize when two novel agents have conflicting goals, and that they use the agents’ relative size to predict the outcome of the very first dominance contests between them. These results suggest that preverbal infants mentally represent social dominance and use a cue that covaries with it phylogenetically, and marks it metaphorically across human cultures and languages, to predict which of two agents is likely to prevail in a conflict of goals. Science 331, 477-480 (2011)
B. The effect of environmental change on ecosystems is mediated by species interactions. Environmental change may remove or add species and shift life-history events, altering which species interact at a given time. However, environmental change may also reconfigure multispecies interactions when both species composition and phenology remain intact. In a Caribbean island system, a major manifestation of environmental change is seaweed deposition, which has been linked to eutrophication, overfishing, and hurricanes. Here, we show in a whole-island field experiment that without seaweed two predators—lizards and ants—had a substantially greater-than-additive effect on herbivory. When seaweed was added to mimic deposition by hurricanes, no interactive predator effect occurred. Thus environmental change can substantially restructure food-web interactions, complicating efforts to predict anthropogenic changes in ecosystem processes. Science 331, 461-463 (2011)


  1. "Is it OK for someone of Paul Wender's stature to indulge?"

    If you're referring to the pun in the abstract, that's not Wender so much as Angewandte Chemie, which sticks them into about every third article. Of course, it's fair to ask whether it's appropriate for them to do that -- some of those puns are terrible.

  2. Well, the abstract is not always connected to Angewandte, it will appear in other places where those who read it will not necessarily know that the journal puns and that the journal writes the abstracts.

    So it "belongs" to Wender, whether he has written it or not (and surely he knows that submitting to Angewandte risks having a "pungent" abstract?)


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