A question as a paper’s title

Yesterday, I came across a paper titled “What are the best covariates for predicting Y?”¹ Having a question as a title is tricky; sometimes it’s good, sometimes it isn’t. Joshua Schimel wrote an excellent guideline² on this topic. Based on that guideline, I would like to analyse this title in this post.

As I read this title, I imagined myself as a professor (my aspiration, after all). A student came up to me and asked the exact same question. I would think to myself, “Best in terms of what?” The question is not specific enough. It is certainly not possible to have a set of covariates that is the best in all situations. So, I would have to ask the students to be more specific; I might have to list several situations and say which set of covariates is generally considered best for each of these situations and why; and I must then conclude that this is the state-of-the-art knowledge at the moment, but when a new situation comes up, more research is needed.

When a question is asked in a paper’s title, the reader expects that the answer will be provided in the body of the paper. But in this case, most readers may react somewhat similarly to how I did. They may think that the paper had better qualify the claims specifically (as above). This means the the reader is prompted to be careful and skeptic. In other words, he knows that he will be disappointed because the original question will not be answered, but only a more specific one will be.

So, why not ask a more specific question from the beginning? From the abstract, it seemed that a more suitable question should be in which circumstance is which covariate good to use. That is what they did in the paper. They considered 6 covariates in 3 classes and tried different combinations and assessed goodness of fit. They concluded that one class of covariates was the best for one type of model, another the class for another type of model, and the third class was never the best. They did not give a best overall combination.


  1. Out of respect for the authors, I did not show the actual title, but a paraphase. Schimel also did this trick in his Writing Science book.
  2. https://schimelwritingscience.wordpress.com/

Misconstrued actions

I have to begin my writing challenge with a rather sad story—one about a moment of social awkwardness I encountered today.

There was a series of presentations today by several PhD students. Before it started, I was asked by the programme coordinator to be the timekeeper for the talks. When it was about to start, the department head was absent, and one faculty member, I’ll call him A, agreed to be the chair. As the first talk went over its time limit and took up most of its Q&A time, A said that the speaker had a couple of minutes left. As I was keeping the time, I said that there was 5 minutes left for both presentation and Q&A. More than a minute later, when the presentation ended, I said there were three and a half minutes left, so we could have two questions. Faculty member B, sitting next to A, said “Now he wants to be the chair”, and A said something similar. I clarified that “I am the timekeeper.” When the first talk is over, A thanked the speaker. Another faculty member, C, said “Why are you thanking him, he [pointed towards me] should be thanking him.” The audience laughed.

Now, in retrospect, I think A was not very happy when I first clarified the time, and I think neither A, B nor C knew that I was the timekeeper. They thought I went over the line. Having had some time for recollection, I think I did. But that was not my intention. I was just clarifying things. I overdid it (I am always serious about what I do). My actions annoyed these people, and the actions were misconstrued as “trying to be the chair”, which was never my intention.

A commitment to writing

I set up this blog as a place to practice writing. Ironically, as I’m now writing my first paper, I have been neglecting this blog for a while. I thought I was already writing, so there was no need to practice writing. I now realize that such reasoning is flawed. Writing a paper is like running a marathon, it is a long and enduring process. When we train for a marathon, we don’t just run long distances. That is the core of the training, but we need to do more. We need to do interval training to beef up the cardio, we need to train different muscles to strengthen them individually, and so on. Similarly, practicing academic writing doesn’t mean just writing papers. I need to do a variety of other writings to flex up the writing muscles. That I am already writing my paper should not be an excuse to stop practicing.

Yesterday, I read about a business consultant who maintained a strict habit of writing every day. The result was that despite his busy schedules, he managed to publish two books. What’s more, the core content of the books came from his daily writings. I was inspired.

So, at this very moment, on a long bus ride home in a rainy evening, I commit myself to writing something every day. It could be this blog, my baby’s blog, my research journal or event in my little notebook if I don’t have any access to a computer. For now, I will keep this writing time flexible while trying to find a good routine. I’ve frequently heard and read that it is best to fix a time slot for writing, but it’s just not possible right now, and I don’t want to overwork myself.

In the spirit of deliberate practice, I will focus on one aspect of writing in each practice piece. The focus can be on conciseness, fluidity, story structure, etc. as I recently learned or am learning at the moment of writing.

This commitment is for a very long term. But as a baby-step start, let me challenge myself to do it for one whole week.

And the challenge starts now.