On being anal

It took me a while to come to the realization that I need to vent over this subject right here, on my blog, no matter how petty, ridiculous and irrelevant it is (the subject, smartass, not the blog).
I am becoming quite tired of having to argue with the editors of one specific (highly respected) physics journal, who insist with trying to change the title of the articles that I submit, before or after their acceptance for publication. Something that started a few years back as a “once-in-a-while” occurrence, has of late become almost a fixture of the editorial processing of my articles submitted to that journal.

Until now I have successfully fought out all of the proposed editorial title changes, typically coming at the end of the reviewing process, after the article had been accepted (I have instead changed title on a couple occasions, following a suggestion by a referee which I thought was appropriate). I think I can honestly say that in no case have I refused to go along with the editorial recommendation for title change “on grounds of principle” [0], as suggested or implied by some editors, who took offence at my “scarce spirit of cooperation”, and went on stalling publication of my articles for as long as several weeks.
I can almost see my friends, colleagues and my numerous readers (two ? three ? But, who is counting…) shaking their heads and going “Why do you have to be so anal ? Does this seem like something worth you getting all bent out of shape ? Just let them change the damned title and move on, already…”.

First of all, dear readers and friends — have you, um, read the title of this post ? Secondly, make no mistake, I am just as eager as the next person to have my paper published timely, as anyone can easily understand who knows how much effort and time go into the research work and on the write-up. However, I am at a point in my career where I can afford a little delay here and there, and I do not think it is a good idea to encourage, or go along supinely with practices that do not seem appropriate, nor conducive to better science and efficient use of limited time.
Please do not get me wrong: I do concur that in principle there is the need for a degree of editorial oversight on the content of manuscripts to appear in print in a scientific journal. Even though each article submitted for publication has been reviewed by peers, charged with assessing not only whether the science is sound, but also if the presentation and readability are up to the journal’s standards, it is a simple fact that many reviewers are not native speakers of English.
It is therefore surely not at all inconceivable that something may have slipped through the cracks, that some colloquial expression not suitable for a journal may have to be redacted. And yes, I can certainly imagine instances of editors suggesting or requesting that authors alter significantly, or even modify altogether an overly theatrical, pompous, misleading or even offensive title [2].

But, how often can we realistically expect that to be necessary ? Can a scientist really go on publishing for decades and not know how to pick a title for her own paper ? I am curious: Do any of my colleagues experience this problem as well ? Are my titles really so off the wall ?
Perhaps I can give a concrete example. The very last such “incident” has prompted my withdrawal of a manuscript submitted for publication to the above-mentioned journal, as the editor immediately changed its title upon receiving it, before even sending it out for anonymous review. Like I said, I withdrew the submission and re-submitted the article to another (actually my favourite) journal, whose editor ostensibly finds my proposed title acceptable.
So, my title is On the existence of blah blah blah, the actual “blah blah blah” being immaterial — it might as well be On the existence of UFOs, and in fact I am going with this one, in the remainder of this post.

So, in this paper, based on calculations that I carried out, I propose that “UFOs” do not exist. The editor changed the title into Existence of UFOs. Is it me, or does the “corrected”, “revised” title suggest the opposite conclusion of what the paper aims at expounding ? In general, is it reasonable to change “On xyz” into “xyz” ? I doubt if philosopher Harry Frankfurt would have welcome the publisher’s or editor’s suggestion that his essay On Bullshit be renamed Bullshit.
And, what is wrong with my title, anyway ? It may not be how others may have titled the same work, but, is it grammatically incorrect ? How is it “inappropriate”, considering that other articles published by the more prestigious section of the same journal are titled in the same, identical way (see this one, for instance) ?
And in general, is this the kind of issue to which editors who routinely complain about being swamped with submissions to examine, should be giving high priority ?

Notes

[0] I would be a liar if I denied that part of me is peeved at the notion that I am not capable of picking a title for my own article.

[1] In general, the most effective defence against an editor’s contention that “this type of title is not regarded as acceptable by this journal” consists of sending a long list of articles already in print on the very same journal, sporting the exact same “type of title”. It is slightly time consuming, but this day and age it is relatively straightforward a task. That is usually where the argument ends… Now, would you not think that they would at least check that, before taking issue with your title ? What do they think, that I cannot use a search engine ?

[2] For example, the request of sanitizing a title singling out (more or less directly) a competitor whose theory is supposedly being disproven in the manuscript is, in my view, perfectly legitimate. Equally inappropriate would be a title like, oh, I don’t know, “End of a fairy tale”… Wow… How did I think of this one, now ? (Hey listen, pal, you almost killed me when I refused to go along with this outrageous title — are you not glad I dragged my feet, now ?)

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9 Responses to “On being anal”

  1. averyangryalterego Says:

    dude, can i tell you something? Now first, this is coming from a guy who doesn’t really care about his blog titles. I would just like to tell you that your titles are okay, but they just felt the need to change it because they’re concerned about getting attention to your article via the title. I know your title is perfect if the journal was only going to be read by your level of intellect then the title is fine. but there are other humans with lower intellect than you are who won’t be interested when they see your title and just move on. seriously dude, i read a number of magazines and blogs and sometimes all i do is read the title. if i don’t like it i move on. but it’s good that you’re venting out here because i vent out a lot on my blog. actually, my blog is just about venting out! as a closing, if you only care about publishing then your title’s probably perfect, but if you’re expect your article to be read, then accept the title change even if it was not suited on your opinion. i would tell you otherwise if the content was changed though.

  2. SM Says:

    Movies, books and plays get their titles changed depending upon the location that they are distributed. For instance, the funky 60′s movie about broadcasting rock and roll in the UK was called “Pirate Radio” in NA, and “The Boat that Rocked” in the UK. Maybe they didn’t use the term pirate radio, I don’t know. There was a hubbub recently on Hill’s book, The Book of Negroes. Interestingly, it had at least 3 different titles for different markets. I preferred The Book of Negroes, as it was a reference to the historical book.

    Unless your audience changes wildly from publication to publication, and the OTHER publications take your titles as they are, I would regard the one publication’s insistence on changing the title as one dog coming in to mark another’s territory and then running away. In other words, a bit of a power play, “because they can”. The title is part of the work. Tell them to go get stuffed.

  3. Yuan Wan Says:

    IMHO, it seems that “On the non-existence of UFOs” would be a more accurate title (though provocative).

    • Massimo Says:

      Well, see, that is exactly the point, I wanted to convey through my title the notion that I am simply expressing my opinion on the subject, not claiming to offer the ultimate answer.
      My opinion is based on some numerical evidence that you or I may consider strong, but others may not regard as definitive (I am not sure if I myself regard anything numerical as “definitive”, and I am saying this as someone whose entire career is built on numerics).

  4. GMP Says:

    Some journals have started enforcing pretty inflexible rules, and maybe one of PRB’s of late may be “no title shall begin with On” or some such thing.

    I remember a recent fight I had with the APL production office about the fact that there can be no acronyms in the title or the abstract, so I could not have FDTD (finite-difference time-domain) — which is a well-known numerical technique and nobody in their right mind calls it or googles it under the full name, always as FDTD — I had to have it spelled out in the title and the abstract, which is ridiculous. They eventually allowed me to have the acronym beside the full name in the abstract so as to facilitate searching but the title remained with the full name which is ludicrous. The same thing happened with a few other common abbreviations, had to spell them out and make the title totally unwieldy. But these were all in the production stage; I have never had a title editorially changed prior to review, like you.
    I occasionally suggest alternative titles when I referee if I think it would do the paper more justice…

    • Massimo Says:

      Some journals have started enforcing pretty inflexible rules, and maybe one of PRB’s of late may be “no title shall begin with On” or some such thing.

      As soon as they have to face more competition from other journals, all of these so-called “rules” (which have never, ever been enforced consistently — just like that supposed ridiculous censorship of the word “new”) will be tossed. In 2011, with ArXiv and competing journals, I don’t think any editor can afford to go on power trips like these, in my opinion.

  5. Physics grad Says:

    I was taught, in writing, the ABCs: accuracy, brevity, and clarity. In science writing brevity does not trump clarity nor accuracy.

    You are right.

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