Do you need to water down your talk/paper titles so that you don’t offend any reviewer?

Will this increase the likelihood of getting your paper accepted?

I was just at a conference, and after talking to a group of younger scientists over dinner, I heard that one of them later made a comment that goes something like this:

“Yes, promoting your work is good, but you don’t want to offend your reviewers with a title that stands out too much….”

Yes, you do want a title that stands out, period!!!!!

Here’s the thing. I wrote “milktoast” titles for my papers and talks for many years. I was afraid of “offending” anyone. Did that reduce my rejections? No.

I still got plenty of paper rejections. I still had to do long cycles of revision. Having milktoast titles (or milktoast papers) did not avoid that!

No, in fact, if you go out of your way to “blend in” so that you “don’t offend,” you’re going to achieve one and only one significant result: you will be unmemorable.

Think about the “famous” scientists you know. Are they boring people who write milktoast titles and who go around worrying about not offending their reviewers?

Well, when people like Craig Venter, Lee Hood, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, and Richard Feyneman come to mind, I think the answer is clear: these people stand out. And that’s why they’re well known. They have (or had) opinions, and aren’t (or weren’t) afraid to express them.

Is expressing your opinion polarizing? Yes, of course it is. But if you don’t do it, you won’t develop any personal “brand” of your own. You won’t be remembered. You won’t stand out. And your papers will just blend in with the thousands of other papers published every day.

This is true in any walk of life. If you don’t express an opinion, you just blend in with the crowd. You don’t get remembered. That’s fine if you’re in a profession where you don’t need to be remembered.

But in science – if you want people to actually pay attention to you – and perhaps give you funding from time to time – you need to get remembered. It is part of the “game” of being in science. If you don’t want to play it, you will always be disadvantaged, like it or not.

I’m not saying that you should set out to intentionally offend people. You should not. But you should take a stand on matters, and make your work stand out with catchy titles, crisp writing, great figures, and good stories about your work.

And, most of all, you need to realize that promoting (or “marketing”) your work is not a bad thing. The funding agencies spend billions to give us money to do good stuff. What if everyone did their research, but then never promoted it? It would be just about as useful as if the work had never been done in the first place. Not very.

Don’t be timid. Reviewers will reject you, no matter what – whether you are opinionated or not. But if you stand out, and if you take a stand, you’ll also find people who become raving fans of your work as well, and give you glowing reviews. You’ll never get one of those by being a milktoast.

overheard a comment someone made about writing an “interesting” title for

    2 replies to "Watering down your title to become milktoast"

    • JoVE

      Great point. Sometimes I wonder why people think they are writing articles in the first place.

      The point of writing scientific articles is to make an impact on the advancement of scientific knowledge.

      In order to make an impact, people have to read your article, remember what you said, and have that influence how they think about whateveritisyoudo so that they do whateveritistheydo differently.

      The reaction that creates impact might be “WOW, that is such an amazing insight. Based on that I think I could…” Or it could be “OMG, that guy is such an idiot. My data totally don’t support his position.”

      Either one is good. It advances science. It gets people thinking and trying new things.

      Hiding behind boring titles is not going to lead to impact.

    • Dr. Q

      Love a good title.
      It’s actually “milque·toast” /ˈmilktōst/
      a timid or feeble person.
      “Jennings plays him as something of a milquetoast”
      feeble, insipid, or bland.
      “a soppy, milquetoast composer”
      Definitions from Oxford Languages

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