Friday, February 3, 2017

Should you put "theory" or "experiment" in the title of your paper?

A referee for a recent paper, entitled "Effect of hydrogen bonding on infrared absorption intensity", suggested that we should add "theory" to the title since the chosen title could equally be about an experimental paper. In the end, we declined but did make the abstract clearer that the paper was purely theoretical.

I thought this is an interesting issue, that I had not thought about explicitly before. If you look at titles of papers it is true that it is sometimes not clear whether the paper is theoretical, experimental, or joint theory and experiment. This is particularly true with theory papers with titles such as "Property X of material ABC" or experimental papers with titles such as "Strong electron correlations in materials class Y". To experts who working are on the same topic or who know the authors it may be obvious. But to others, it may not be so obvious.

Does it matter?
Surely if the abstract makes it clear then it is o.k.?
[Again it is amazing how for some abstracts in luxury journals you have to read to practically the last sentence to figure it out. This is because experimental papers can be clothed in theoretical hype].

The suggestion prompted me to do two things.
First, I looked through the titles of most of my papers and found that the only ones which contained "theory" were those which referred to a particular technique, e.g. "Dynamical mean-field theory" or "linear spin wave theory".

Second, I looked at the titles of some famous papers, such as BCS and by P.W. Anderson.
BCS is "Theory of superconductivity" and the abstract begins "A theory...".
PWA does have "theory" in some papers but not others.

The only conclusion I came to from all of this is that I think we should work hard on the titles (and abstracts) of our papers, since the title may determine whether or not they are read.

Maybe it is tangential, but it also reminded me that like Anderson, I am largely against combined theory and experiment papers.

What do you think? Does it matter?


  1. I think it should not matter; if a reader truly wants to study some physics or material property, both theory and experimental papers need to be read. (In fact, experimentalists being put off by the idea of a theory paper need to seriously scratch their head whether they are in the business of understanding what they are doing - and vice versa w.r.t. relevance.)
    I.e. it should not matter whether a paper is theoretical or experimental; *the conclusion/main idea put forward in the paper* should be the incentive to studying it - not the way (theory/exp) how they reached that idea.

    I would think that group meetings should force a certain fraction of paper discussions to be across the theory/experimental boundary. I.e. have experimentalists study and discuss theory papers (a fraction of the time) and vice versa.

    I agree with the first paragraph of your older post you refer to - but I don't think combined papers should be avoided. Although I admit experimentalists should have a better grasp of theory so they won't need the theoretical brains to get a paper published, it is still a fact that "diversity" often leads to better ideas (explanations). So developing ideas while collaborating - and that warrants co-authorship! - across theory/exp boundaries should be applauded, but not demanded.

    (Related: it appears easier for theorists to publish theory only papers than experimentalists to publish experiment-only papers. Very often we're asked to justify our conclusion with a significant theoretical component beyond our skill-set...)

  2. @pcs: I guess the main complaint is related to the luxury journals, where it is often very difficult to publish experimental data without a very clear (and often novel/exotic) explanation of the results. This is dangerous, because when some new and controversial experimental results are revealed, there is often not a clear explanation initially, which enforces either a) the authors do not publish in a top-tier journal, or b) they strongly endorse one possible theory, without completely digesting the alternatives.

    In my experience, what usually promotes a mid-level experimental article into a luxury journal is exactly the speculative theoretical interpretation that is tacked on. As pcs says, it's becoming harder to publish experiment-only papers. To me, this seems bad for the community, because there is a very high chance that the very first theoretical interpretation misses some unseen aspects, and is therefore incorrect or incomplete. This is just how you expect science works - it's not the fault of the authors - the ideas have to be digested and revised. Simply due to length restrictions, it might not even be practical to present a full experimental and theoretical study. Moreover, the motivation of the authors is simply to publish their results, which can lead to favouring more exotic interpretations if different possibilities can explain the initial data.

    This creates a poor incentive system. The most visible and valuable experimental articles are also the ones that are most likely to have an incomplete interpretation. It feels to me that extremely good experimental results can be tarnished by some overreaching theory.

    I wish it were possible to say, "This is an interesting field, we did this difficult and detailed experiment, and saw this result (which might be consistent with theory X), but there are other theories Y and Z where it is unknown what the response should be. We hope this will stimulate further research, because this issue is not completely settled."