Using a cliché title or not using a cliché title: Or how to repel potential readers

camiel photoBy Camiel Beukeboom / Reading Time: 6 Minutes

Using a good title for your academic paper is very important to attract interested readers. Yet, quite often titles are uninformative and/or anything but attractive. Authors often manage to formulate a “completely ineffective title (…) that repels and puts off potential readers” apparently “to ensure that as few as possible are motivated to look beyond the title to the abstract, or the full text.” (Writing for Research, 2014). I like to focus on one excellent way to formulate a repulsive title: Namely to use the most annoying cliché title imaginable – that is, anything derived from the Shakespearean phrase “to be or not to be – that is the question”.

In order to test my disquieting suspicion how badly milked this title really is, I ran some searches in Google Scholar and Web of science. This revealed an impressive prevalence of Shakespearean titles. keep-calm-and-to-be-or-not-to-be-3 Searching Google scholar for “Or not to” in titles resulted in 12,900 hits. The same query in Web of science revealed 11,487 titles. Moreover, many titles include the “that is the question” part in the title. Google scholar gave 1,830 hits including it, and web of science gave 1,662 “that is the question” titles. I even found 1160 hits in Google scholar for titles including the whole shebang (i.e., the combination of “or not to” and “that is the question”).

Based on my rough search I will now provide you with some easy ways to also include the marvelous Shakespearean to-be-or-not-to-be phrase in your title:

1. Simply replace “be” with whatever is the topic of your paper. To give you some (recent) examples:

To date or not to date, that is the question: older single gay men’s concerns about dating. Suen, Yiu Tung (2015). Sexual And Relationship Therapy.

To reheat, or to not reheat: that is the question: The efficacy of a local reheating protocol on mechanisms of cutaneous vasodilatation. Del Pozzi, Andrew T.; Hodges, Gary J. (2015). Microvascular Research.

To pill or not to pill in GnRH antagonist cycles: that is the question! Garcia-Velasco, Juan A.; Fatemi, Human M. (2015). Reproductive Biomedicine Online.

To Drink or Not to Drink: That Is the Question. Rubin, Emanuel (2014). Alcoholism-Clinical And Experimental Research

To fractionate or not to fractionate? That is the question for the radiosurgery of hypoxic tumors. Toma-Dasu, Iuliana; Sandstrom, Helena; Barsoum, Pierre; et al. (2014) Journal Of Neurosurgery.

2. If possible you could also add your topic of investigation behind “be”:

To be or not to be… stationary? That is the question. DE Myers (1989). Mathematical Geology.

To be or not to be (challenged), that is the question: Task and ego orientations among high-ability, high-achieving adolescents. DY Dai (2000). The Journal of Experimental Education.

Optimized microphone deployment for near-field acoustic holography: To be, or not to be random, that is the question MR Bai, JH Lin, KL Liu (2010). Journal of Sound and Vibration.

To be or not to be humorous in class—That is the question. V Kothari, DS Rana, AS Khade (1993). Journal of Marketing Education.

Phytosterols: to be or not to be toxic; that is the question. G Lizard (2008). British Journal of Nutrition.

3. If the above does not fit to your topic, don’t worry. The easiest thing to do, is to just attach the to-be-or-not-to phrase to whatever is the topic of investigation. This works always, even if there is no apparent particular relevance:

The role of bone marrow biopsy in Hodgkin lymphoma staging: “To be, or not to be, that is the question”? M Hutchings (2012). Leukemia & Lymphoma.

To be, or not to be: Paradoxes in strategic public relations in Italy. C Valentini, K Sriramesh (2014). Public Relations Review.

The metabolic syndrome: To be or not to be, that is the question. PJ Grant, DK McGuire (2006). Diabetic Medicine.

To Be or Not to Be, That is the Question: Contemporary Military Operations and the Status of Captured Personnel. GS Corn, ML Smidt – Army Law (1999). HeinOnline.

To be, or not to be, that is the question: Apoptosis in human trophoblast. R Levy, DM Nelson (2000). Placenta.

To be, or not to be, that is the question: an empirical study of the WTP for an increased life expectancy at an advanced age. M Johannesson, PO Johansson (1996). Journal of Risk and Uncertainty.

And finally, if you still did not succeed. Just stick to the “to-be-or-not-to” phrase without adding anything significant. This example is particularly nice, with its frisky quotation marks around “be”.

Editorial: To “be” or not to “be”: that is the question. CT Frenette, RG Gish (2009). The American Journal of Gastroenterology

The above examples unfortunately do not cover all. The list goes on and on. For me, scrolling through the lists linked above simultaneously evoked subtle seizures of helpless laughter and a strong sense of discomfort. The lack of creativity is really disturbing. So please, please for my wellbeing, but also for your own good, take my advice and stay away from Shakespearian titles. These cliché titles do not leave a great impression about the author’s sense of creativity. Neither does it augur much about the content of the paper. I will certainly not read it and definitely not cite it. Because even before I start reading the abstract I will have turned away in aversion and vicarious shame.


Writing for Research (2014). Why do academics and PhDers carefully choose useless titles for articles and chapters?: Six ways to get it wrong, and four steps to get it right.

Camiel Beukeboom is an Assistant Professor in the department of Communication Science at VU University Amsterdam. He is also Program Director of the VU Graduate School of Social Sciences and initiator and editor of the Socializing Science PhD blog. (@camielbeukeboom)

Tips for new scholars

Bouwmanby Tamara Bouwman / Reading Time: 4 Minutes /

Last July I attended my first big conference as a PhD-student. I’ve been to large conferences before, but only as a student with little experience. This time I was going to tell the world about the research I’ve been spending more than two years on, so I was really excited. A big plus side was that the conference was of the International Association for Relationship Research ( Since my research focuses on an online friendship enrichment program for people aged 50 and older you can image I was looking forward to it, because the topic was very relevant.

The conference was really nice, and I got nice response to my presentation. But what really got me thinking during the conference, and what I want to share with you in this blog, are some very useful PhD-career tips. These are tips and advise me and other new scholars got from experts in the field during a ‘New Scholars Networking and Mentoring Luncheon’. This meeting was specifically for new researchers in the field, so mainly PhD-students. It provided both a nice opportunity to meet some fellow graduate students as well as obtaining some great advice from the old hands in the field.

programmPicThe experts were asked by the chair what was the best advice they had gotten when they were still graduate students, and then to give us some advice. I heard some great things during the lunch meeting and will list my favorite advices here (in my own words):

  • Maintain your standards – don’t lower them!
  • In relation to the previous advice: It’s better to have three good publications than a lot of half quality ones.
  • Dare to say no – you don’t have to do all the things you are asked, it really is okay to say no from time to time
  • Don’t strategize too much, you can’t plan everything
  • Think about your definition of productivity – is it realistic? Or do you expect too much out of one day?


  • Don’t take reviews personal – just keep going (see them as free feedback from the best experts in your field!)
  • Focusing on your number of publications is counterproductive –focus on the quality
  • Everybody’s career is different, it differs in pace and other things, so don’t compare yourself to other graduate students (or staff-members) all the time.
  • Collaborate with people whose research is similar and who got grants and have good publications
  • Try not to overwhelm yourself with data. You probably can do many more analyses, but you need to start writing! (author’s note: I know this to be my own pitfall)
  • Drawing your own course can be scary but probably it is worth it and it will most likely pay off.
  • A paper has to be a story about the dependent variable – so if you’re stuck, try to think of it as a story and try to see where the elements are missing.
  • What’s the big picture? Keep that in mind – always!
  • Writing academic papers is a craft. You’ll get better at it over the years. (author’s note: here is a great blog about thinking of academic writing as a craft)
  • Find your best 4-5 hours in a day and use those to write or do what is most important at that time.
  • Have a writing day each week, maybe even at home. But keep one day a week for just writing, so no appointments, no e-mail etc.

Some of these advices really hit me like a train and I try to keep them in mind while struggling with my current paper. I sometimes tend to get involved in too many things at once, so since I came back from Australia I tried to decide more consciously which things I should get involved in. I did deliberately say no to some requests when I got back. Furthermore, my own favorite advice was to keep in mind that writing academic papers is a craft, it’s a learning process and by doing it a lot I will get better at it. I hope some of these advices might be of use for you as well!

Finally, my own advice: make sure you join as many of these new scholar events at conferences as you can. Look for descriptions as the one above in the conference program. Or you could even consider to get involved in the organization if it is a conference you are attending more than once!


Tamara Bouwman MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Sociology. Her research project is about developing and testing a multifaceted, web-based, friendship program for adults aged 50 years.

Three good reasons to write like a monk

Annemiek van Os  by Annemiek van Os / Reading Time: 5 Minutes /

It’s 5 A.M. and I am wide awake.

Usually I’m awoken roughly by the clanking sounds of a construction site near my house. Today, it’s the cheerful (yet deafening) sound of birds that announce the new day.

Usually I would have read my e-mail and checked my news apps by now, as I would be doing again and again and again later during the day. Today, I look forward to another ‘offline’ day, with my writing flow only interrupted by the soothing rhythm of coffee and food breaks.

This week, I’m doing everything differently. I’m writing Benedict-style.

Benedict (480 – 547 AD) was a saint who established a number of monasteries in his days and who gained (and still maintains to have) many followers who live according to his vision on spiritual and secular life, which he has written down in his ‘Rule for monks’. The structural elements of this rule have inspired the daily structure in the guest house where I am staying this week to write the general introduction of my dissertation. My schedule for each day is as follows:

Bildschirmfoto 2014-06-26 um 23.27.48

The daily structure advocated by Benedict is simple and strict, and this makes it utterly effective. Apparently, this daily routine is in agreement with the natural human biorhythm. The strict structure may make you feel a bit eerie in the beginning. Sometimes you can have the idea that only you can decide what the best moment is to start writing that paragraph you have been procrastinating around for days, and not the clock. The same thing goes for quitting your writing: what if you’re in a flow at that particular time? Why should you stop just because Benedict decided ages ago that it is time for coffee? Here’s three reasons why it’s a good idea to follow the structure anyway:

1. Learning the art of beginning

The structure encourages you to just start working. With a minimum of distractions (writing is the only thing on your agenda) and a doable time slot (you never write for more than two hours at a time), there is no excuse to not just pick up your pen – ha ha, I mean, log on to your computer of course – and start writing. Just do it. In essence, Benedict has eliminated the beast called procrastination that all PhDs fear:

via © Jorge Cham

 2. Learning the art of stopping

Benedict was as serious about exercise as about relaxation and gets extra awesomeness points for making recreation a mandatory aspect of his daily rhythm. Taking a rest, both physically and mentally, is obviously important, otherwise you’ll eventually lose focus and you will be less productive. In Benedict’s time, the restorative breaks from work were meant as opportunities for prayer. However, you can also just take a walk, read a blog, or drink a good cup of coffee with colleagues and friends. Anything that takes your brain off work, relaxes your mind and puts the difficulties related to your research project in the right perspective will do.

3. Learning the right attitude between beginning and stopping

Between the start and stop sign is the zone where your actual work takes place. Benedict advocated doing everything with so-called relaxed dignity. To put it more New Agey, it is all about ‘now’, not ‘later’. So instead of getting stressed about all the stuff you still need to do later, you gently focus on the only thing that is truly relevant: what you can do right now (this is the relaxed-part). And whatever happens during your work hours, you should take it in stride and not get too upset about it (this is the dignity-part). Paying full attention to what you’re doing at the present moment can limit the pressure you may feel on finishing the job. It may even be surprisingly healing or productive to fully surrender yourself to that dreaded paper you need to finish.

My own experience with living according to Benedict’s rule has been nothing but amazing. It was no surprise to me to see that the super-strict structure was beneficial for my productivity. The magnitude of the difference with writing at home or at the office without that clear structure, however, has astonished me. Of course, it helps that I’m at a beautiful castle surrounded by nature, that all meals are prepared and all dishes are washed for me, and that there is no hallway buzzing with colleagues and students outside the library I’m working in. But Benedict has gotten me convinced that it is mostly the structure and the ideas behind it that are so extremely effective. And I would encourage anyone to try it out for themselves!

A final note for the cynics out there: I’ll have you know that I did not procrastinate during the ‘official schedule’ by writing this blog. I actually wrote (most of) it at 5 in the morning.


Annemiek van Os is a PhD candidate at the department of Organization Sciences. Her research focuses on how organizational members deal with identity threat caused by errors.

This blog was inspired by the following source: Wil Derkse (2003). The rule of Benedict for beginners: Spirituality for daily life (translation by Martin Kessler). Liturgical Press.

How to make a successful (and attractive) research poster? Tips and tricks:

Bouwman  by Tamara Bouwman / Reading Time: 5 Minutes /

As a PhD you probably have made a research poster at some point, or you are going to make one in the future. You fly half way across the globe to present your poster at a large conference. And there you are, along with 300(!) other posters. So how do you make your poster stand out? What are good ways to make your poster attractive enough to make people stop and actually read your poster?

In this blog I will give you some tips and tricks to make your poster more attractive and what you can do to stand out in the crowd.

In March the Graduate Platform hosted a poster workshop, followed by the First VU University Amsterdam, Faculty of Social Sciences PhD Poster Market mid-April. On mid-March about 20 PhD-candidates from within (but also a few from other faculties) gathered in the Graduate Room for a workshop ‘Successful poster design’. The focus of the workshop was to learn how to make a research poster as attractive and interesting as possible. Louise Mennen is a very experienced trainer and provided the PhD’s with a lot of valuable information on poster design. I will sum-up some key point that you might want to take into account.

3-30-300 rule

An overall rule to keep in mind is the 3-30-300 rule. Assume you have:

o   3 seconds to attract attention and grasp the topic of the poster: This means the title of your poster should attract attention (you might want to formulate it as a question?)

o   30 seconds to keep the attention and to get your overall message across: Your key message, or take-home message, should be clear right away. Don’t stick to the regular paper structure of introduction, methods, results, conclusion/ discussion (which is usually your key message and in the end). Put the information that is most important on top of your poster, right below the title (maybe even in a different colored box).

o   300 seconds to read the entire poster

In order to keep up with the 3-30-300 rule your poster needs to be well-designed. The following, more concrete tips will help you with that.

Visualize your research

Visuals stand out in a poster – they attract the attention of the audience. It is important to think about which elements to visualize in your research. For example, for my own dissertation I developed and tested an online friendship program for people aged 50 and over. The online program has its own website (you can check out the website here). I decided to shape my poster as the actual website of the online friendship program The poster attracted attention because of the website lay-out – that the research had something to do with a website became clear right away, mainly because of the taskbar at the top of the poster. Keep in mind though that the visuals should support your message. So when you are selecting images or visual representations ask yourself; do these visuals have anything to do with the information next to it? And do they support the message, (and not contradict!) your message?

Also, try to add something to your poster that stands out from the rest. In my case, that was a QR-code (a barcode you can scan with your smartphone) which linked to an animated video with an example from the friendship program.

Font size and whitespace

Mind the font size you are using, try not to use anything below 24 points (if you have to you can use 18 for references etc.). Also, avoid using different font sizes, try not to use more than two in the main sections of your poster. If your font size varies it makes the poster look messy and makes it harder to read. Don’t use italics, if you want to emphasize something make it bold.

Something that even I did not manage to do is keep about 40% of your poster ‘white’ (i.e., without text). Your font size and whitespace should be used in such a way that you can read the entire poster in 300 seconds (remember the rule) and from about 1 meter distance. A nice way to check the layout of the entire poster is to print it on an A4-sized paper and check if you can read everything without trouble. If it is easy to read (font size) and nice to look at, you are heading in the right direction.

Names and a picture

Remember, it is your poster – so your name should be most prominent on it. If you like, you can choose to put your name on top (below the title) and the names of your supervisors at the bottom. Another nice way to draw attention to your poster (and yourself) is to put a photo of yourself on your poster. That way people know whose poster it is, even when you are not standing next to it.

Tamara Bouwman at the PhD Poster Market


Just a brief tip about the use of colors on your poster. All black and white will be boring, so of course you want to use nice colors in your poster. Do keep in mind, however, that too many colors can be confusing. The general rule to keep in mind here (and with the rest of your poster) is to keep it simple. Try not to use to many colors. Also make sure that if you use a colored background the color of the font has enough contrast. Check out the earlier blog by Robert Paauwe for some great tips.


Hopefully these tips are useful for you when you need to present a poster at a conference. They sure helped the PhDs who presented at the poster market and made it very hard for the jury to decide which poster should get the FSS PhD Poster Award. The jury, consisting of five members of the FSS who recently finished their PhD, had the difficult task to decide which of the 21 (!) posters that were presented at the poster market would win the award. I must admit, the tips and tricks I described in this blog worked for me, because my poster won the award at the FSS PhD Poster Market!


Tamara Bouwman MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Sociology. Her research project is about developing and testing a multifaceted, web-based, friendship program for adults aged 50 years.

Searching for the secret to storytelling — How to make a good story great

Marloes Spekman  by Marloes Spekman / Reading Time: 4 Minutes /

Once upon a time, in a land far far away, lived a girl with golden hair and baby blue eyes. She spent her days fantasizing about writing the most wonderful stories that everyone in the world would read and talk about. She dreamed of persuading people of the importance of her research via mind-blowing narrative constructions. And she fantasized about sharing with everyone what fascinates her about the world around her. Thus, she went on a quest to find the Secret to Storytelling.

Along the way, she had to overcome many obstacles (such as the newest version of APA). After a long and exhausting journey, she finally found what she was after all along: the Secret to Storytelling. It was found in the last place she would have expected it. This is the story of her journey.


In reality, the girl with golden hair and blue eyes is ‘just another’ PhD student striving to inspire people by sharing her research findings in the best way possible. Yes, me: Marloes Spekman, a PhD student in the field of Communication Science/Media Psychology doing a PhD project within the SELEMCA project.

Strictness of rules

In the last few years, I realized that telling stories is not as simple as it often seems. Sure, there are certain rules for telling your story, in every field or genre. A fairytale, for instance, is expected to start off with “Once upon a time”, just like I did in the introduction here. Most research papers are expected to follow a strict set of rules, such as APA 6th. Conference presentations (at least in my field) usually follow the same order of elements (i.e., introduction, method, results, and conclusion/discussion). Even photography has certain rules, such as the so-called rule of thirds that most photographers keep in mind when taking their photos. However, strictly adhering to the rules often does not deliver the best stories. Rather, doing so usually produces utterly boring end-products. Still, we keep teaching these rules to next generations, so they must be making sense in some way or another, right?

What makes a good story great?

So, I started searching for the answer to the question: What makes a good story great?  To find the answer, I took a number of courses and workshops within the Graduate School and VU University over the years (e.g., Language and Interaction, PhD Success and Personal Efficacy). Surprisingly, I didn’t find the answer there, but it came to me during a talk related to one of my hobbies: photography. Our local Media Markt had invited Eddy van Wessel, a renowned war photographer and winner of the Silver Camera in 2012, to give a talk about his work. During his talk, he showed the amateur photographers in the audience many of his pictures and shared with them under what circumstances he had made the pictures. What struck me about his images was that all of them told impressive stories¹, but very little of them adhered to the ‘photography rules’. For instance, he took pictures in Aleppo, Syria, while the city was being bombed. The images show the devastation the bombs caused, people taking refuge for yet another bomb attack, and the casualties after such attacks. Many of his pictures are either skewed, contain noise, or put the subject somewhere in the middle (while, according to the rule of thirds, the picture would be more interesting if the subject would be placed at one- or two-thirds of the image).

Rules? Stretch and bend them!

And that is when I realized: Telling a good story has nothing to do with your ability to understand and apply the rules, but rather with your ability to be creative with these rules. Sure, you may have to stick to APA rules when writing up a journal article, but that doesn’t mean you cannot be creative in writing. Why not start out with a hypothetical situation to illustrate your problem? Why not use a metaphor to make an abstract idea more tangible? Why not refer to non-academic works that help you in making your point (e.g., movies, comedians)? Why not insert an image or flow-chart to visualize the procedure participants went through? A certain bandwidth exists around the rules, so stretch them, bend them, and use them in any way you like!

After returning home from her quest, the girl with the golden hair and baby blue eyes excitedly ran to her desk, took up her quill, dipped it in the ink pot, and eagerly started writing. As her quill started flying over the paper, she felt less and less restricted in her writing. And she wrote happily ever after!

¹ Many of his photographs can be found on Eddy’s website. Please be aware that some of these images may be rather shocking, so visit at your own risk.

The aesthetics of science — How to visualize your research

Robert Paauwe  by Robert Paauwe / Reading Time: 5 Minutes /

In 2012, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced a major discovery related to the Higgs boson (an elementary particle). Unfortunately, most of their presentation looked like this:

©CERN 2012

Although the findings were a major discovery in particle physics, there was a particular hype in the media regarding the visual appeal of the presentation. The purpose of presenting your work (poster, presentation, blogs, video, etc.) is to communicate. In the case of CERN, the combination of bad typography, poor choice of colors, and the amount of information presented resulted in the aesthetic appeal of your average high school science project. Even if the audience is used to complex graphs and dense information, overloading them with information still harms your story. In this blog I will present some easy, initial steps how to make your research more appealing and communicative without turning into a full-time graphic designer.

Originally, ‘less is more’ was introduced as a minimalist design principle by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It refers to the principle that by using less means to achieve a certain effect will lead to a more appealing result. This is applicable not only for design and architecture, but also for conveying information. A great example of this is the data-ink ratio, as proposed by Edward Tufte. The data-ink ratio is the proportion of ink in a graphic devoted to the display of information that is essential. Hypothetically, the data-ink ratio can be calculated by dividing the amount of ink used to display data by the amount of total ink in used in the graphic. This may sound very abstract, but the visualization below based on Tufte’s work should make it clear. Both graphs convey the same amount of information, however the right graph uses less ink to display this information.


The question you should ask yourself when making a presentation is: is what I am doing contributing to the message I am conveying, or am I trying to be fancy? It is better to stick to plain and clear, than (try) to be fancy and miss the point. Adding more things for the sake of adding more things does not help your message, or worse adding things because it was the easiest way to do it (did you copy your tables directly from SPSS?).

Which font you use can make the difference in how your work is is perceived. There is not a universally ‘best’ font. It all depends on where and how you apply it (FontFeed is a great resource for information on typography). Selecting a font should be a conscious decision. Some fonts are great for titles, but terrible for entire texts (e.g., Arial Black, Akzidenz Grotesk). Other fonts are amazing for the entirety of the text, but not very eye-catching as titles (e.g., Times New Roman, Adobe Caslon). Some examples:


But most importantly, if you use a custom font, remember to export your presentation to PDF! The machine you will presenting on will not have that font, and your presentation will look horribly mutilated. By exporting it to PDF, you will ensure your presentation looks the way you intended.

The colors you use have a huge impact on if and how your message is received. We all remember that one presentation that burned our eyes whilst squinting to read the slides. A good rule of thumb for color is to have enough contrast between background and type, and do not use complementary colors (colors that are opposite in the color wheel; red-green, yellow-violet, blue-orange, etc.). Some examples:


A great tool to help you find good color schemes is Adobe Kuler, a tool that helps you generate color schemes based on certain principles. More interestingly, they also maintain a huge database of amazing color schemes for you to use, created by their community. To illustrate this, below are some examples that work well based on popular color schemes on Kuler.


Since Google, it has become amazingly easy to find high resolution images with zero effort. However, at conferences, in papers, and on blogs, I still encounter grainy and stretched low resolution images. When searching for images, simply use:

Google Images > Search Tools > Size > Large or greater.

There are no excuses for not doing this.

Most likely, your university emphasizes that you should use their predesigned templates. Also, it is very easy for you because you do not have to think about your design. However, it makes your presentation uniform and look like all the other presentations. Do not use these templates. All APA articles look the same. All university presentations look alike. Make your own templates.

Of course, these few thoughts are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making your research compelling and visually appealing. The best way to check if people understand your data, is by asking non-scientists and people outside of your field of expertise to look at your presentation, poster graphs, or tables. If they get the idea (without you explaining every detail), you are in the right direction. Furthermore, if you are interested in novel ways of visualizing data, take a look at Information is Beautiful. They have a large variation of infographics and several ways of making your data more communicative.

To conclude; do nice aesthetics make bad presentations good? No. Neither do poor graphics completely ruin a presentation (regardless of what designers will tell you). However, by being more considerate of the visuals and style you use, you can empower your story, be more communicative, and ensure your message comes across. Will CERN’s next presentation look appealing? I do not know. Will yours? I hope so.