Douglas Altman: When one word is enough (Blood and Lamborghinis)

Douglas AltmanLong before Top Gear, for a while in my twenties (and for the only time in my life) I regularly bought a car magazine called, well, Car. The magazine was quite unlike the staid competitors, which I had seen occasionally, probably mainly in doctors’ waiting rooms. Car probably appealed to the younger reader, with test drives of Lamborghinis and the like, but I remember also reading well-written and somewhat offbeat articles about driving, essays really, by the memorably-named LJK Setright. I don’t remember much else now. Nor do I remember how I first came to buy Car, but it was certainly not my usual reading material. Perhaps I was attracted by the lower case font for the magazine title –very unconventional at the time – but maybe too it was the stark simplicity of the magazine’s name that led me to browse a copy.

I have similarly taken some pleasure from medical journals with self-explanatory one word names. Eye, Gut, Pain, Sleep, Radiology, Heart, Cell, Cancer, Blood, and more. I realised while writing this that I was the person who suggested the one word name for the journal I co-edit, Trials. So maybe The Lancet should drop its article? Other journals have reduced their names to a few letters, such as BMJ, JAMA, BJOG, but those don’t convey the purity of meaning of Blood, say. I particularly like the titles that refer to parts of the body. It’s fun to imagine other possibilities such as Toes, Skin, Nose, Appendix, and so on. But some one word titles are not so explicit. It will not be obvious to most people that the journal Silence is about RNA.

That line of thought led me to think about journal articles with one word titles. There must be many but the only one that came to mind immediately was an article titled “Bias” by Geoffrey Rose. I wondered if I had ever published an article with a one word title and discovered that indeed I have done so twice, both in BMJ (on Matching and Logarithms). I am sure that (The) Lancet, with its penchant for cryptic titles, must have published unsigned editorials with one word titles, but it’s not something I know how to search for on PubMed.

Car magazine lives on. The website today offers, among many goodies, an article about a new Lamborghini. Among his many books, LJK Setright wrote one entitled just “Motorcycles.”

Douglas Altman is the director and professor of statistics in medicine at the Centre for Statistics in Medicine, University of Oxford.