Of Of Mice and Men: High school English class lives on in scientific paper titles

“The reviewers hated the title” (C.E. Brock illustration for Pride and Prejudice, 1895, via Pemberly.com)

Writing titles for scientific papers is hard. The title is the one element of the paper everyone reads if they so much as skim a journal’s table of contents e-mail. These days, you also want something that’ll fit in a tweet with room for the DOI link. So you want something informative, but also memorable — and ideally something that prompts people to click the link. That certain je ne sais quoi.
But also you don’t want to look unprofessional. You can’t go around calling your study organism cute even if this is quantifiably the case; you can’t reference risqué cocktail names or clichés about penises or especially trashy fantasy movies. What can you use to be more fun than just reporting your results, but, like, in the safest possible way?
One popular answer, based on a highly unsystematic survey of PubMed, is to use the title of a book that you probably read in high school English class. There are lots of excuses (no, really, as many as 1,061) to title a paper with Of Mice and Men in biomedical research. (And, um, in blogging about said research.) Following up on this Twitter exchange, I went to PubMed with some familiar old titles to see if any other members of the junior-year canon are more popular than John Steinbeck’s sad little tale.
In general, literary titles that don’t name specific places or people were more likely to turn up in PubMed entries; I skipped searching for a lot of obvious choices (sorry, Northanger Abbey and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). I also left Shakespeare untouched, since the Bard offers so many options for quoting the text of his works, as well as their titles. Also, though PubMed is a repository for biomedical journals, there were more than occasional entries that were actually about the literary works referenced. So the counts I came up with are upper, not lower, limits to the recorded uses of each title. Here’s what I found:

  • Animal Farm gets 24 PubMed results, but a lot of them about actual farms with, like, animals.
  • The Crucible: This one turns out to be pretty hard to quantify, because crucibles are lab equipment … but would you believe 7 PubMed results for Death of a Salesman?
  • The Grapes of Wrath: The Joads are not nearly as popular as poor George and Lenny; they only get 9 PubMed results
  • Invisible Man (or maybe The Invisible Man): 9 PubMed results
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Just one PubMed result
  • Lord of the Flies: Evidently Drosophila are less feudal than I’d expected, because there are only 3 PubMed results, one of which is really about the book.
  • The Odyssey: 688 PubMed results but it seems unlikely many of them have cyclopes, sirens, or wandering veterans of the Trojan War in mind.
  • The Scarlet Letter: Only 26 PubMed results, but maybe there’s more to be found in the wild, licentious dark of the woods.
  • The Sound and the Fury: 38 PubMed results, signifying nothing.
  • Things Fall Apart: 7 PubMed results which, I hope, don’t.
  • War of the Worlds: 8 PubMed results that clearly intend to invoke invading aliens in giant tripedal walking-machines.

Mr. Pickwick addresses the editorial board. (Robert Seymour illustration for Pickwick Papers, 1836, via The Victorian Web)

Apart from Steinbeck, I found quite a few authors with multiple titles represented:
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is referenced in 71 PubMed results, and Sense and Sensibility is in 49 PubMed results.
Charles Dickens is almost as prolific in PubMed as he was in life, with 297 PubMed results for Great Expectations, 149 PubMed results for A Tale of Two Cities, and no fewer than 15 PubMed results for A Christmas Carol.
Rudyard Kipling makes appearances with 9 PubMed Results for Just-So Stories, the book whose title is very nearly the ultimate insult in evolutionary biology; I also find one for The Jungle Book, though it’s translated from the German, and one for Captains Courageous. I regret to inform you there is also at least one for “Gunga Din” that looks worryingly non-ironic, and one for “The White Man’s Burden” that ditto, but also appears to be a case study about a woman? It’s another German translation. What do Germans like so much about Kipling?
Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde nets 8 PubMed results, and Treasure Island just 6 PubMed results.
Mark Twain turns up for 5 PubMed results riffing on The Innocents Abroad, and exactly one for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Jules Verne gets just one PubMed result for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; and 3 PubMed results for Around the World in 80 Days.
Finally, Oscar Wilde does better than I guessed he would: 5 PubMed results for The Picture of Dorian Gray, and a whopping 36 PubMed results for my very favorite, The Importance of Being Earnest. That seems as good a note as any to strike at the end of this little excursion — however you come up with a title for your next manuscript, it is vitally important that your choice be, well, sincere.

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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