I think a lot of academic article titles are pretty bad. What do I mean by bad? The title doesn’t really tell you what the paper is actually is about. It could be buried in jargon, or overselling an idea, or focuses on details that most of the intended audience won’t care about.
Does the title of a paper affect how it gets read and cited? Probably. In what way? That’s not so simple, based on my short browse of some scientometric findings.
In medical journals, the longer your title is, the more you get cited. And there also a positive effect of using a colon before a subtitle, as in the title of this post. If you’re specific about a particular country, that hurts your citation rate.
In the journal Functional Ecology, you get cited more if you don’t mention the kind of organism you’re working with. If you have a subtitle after a colon, then you’re less likely to get a negative evaluation from a reviewer or an editor.
In the PLOS suite of journals, titles with colons were cited less. Articles with questions in the title were downloaded more, but cited less. Articles with longer titles had a slight disadvantage compared to ones with shorter titles.
A study of a broad variety of journals in all kinds of fields found that journals with very high impact factors demonstrate a positive relationship between title and citation length, but this effect didn’t occur in journals with more typical impact factors.
Because titles typically aren’t that good, it’s hard to know what kind of results you really will find in a paper from reading the title. This phenomenon gets real old. The timing on this was really funny, as I am writing this post, I looked over at twitter and saw a link to this paper:
accompanied with a note of dismay that, upon reading the paper, there are no frickin’ data about cichlids. How can you explain an adaptive radiation without actually testing questions using data from the animals in question? (Now, since the National Academy of Sciences doesn’t want everybody to readily access the papers they publish, I don’t have a copy of this paper to read at this writing.) Based on the abstract, at least, my gosh they’re talking about lake sediments. The historical changes inferred from these sediments, interpreted in light of the extraordinary diversity of cichlids, can help you sell up a paper from Hydrobiologia to PNAS.
The way I read the abstract, I see this paper is not about cichlids. It’s about mud. Yes, I know they’re studying the mud because of the fish, but the paper isn’t based on fish data. The mud is interesting because of the story it implies about the fish, but the data are about the mud in the lake, right? I’m not entirely alone in this interpretation.
I get it. It’s sales. I know I have to read journal titles with the same skepticism to be employed while reading clickbait headlines. We can’t trust our colleagues — or even ourselves — to call a spade a spade, because the metrics matter. Even a high quality product still needs marketing. Academic moneyball is a thing, even if we want to overlook it or pretend that it’s not.
I’m not claiming my own titles are good, but I don’t think they’re misleading. In some cases, I’ve chosen titles to increase marketability to editors and reviewers. In some cases, like this one, I’ve had absurd reviewer
demands suggestions make a title bad. In some cases like this, I tried to make it as broad as possible for sales. But if you spell out too many results in a title, like in this one, it gets weighed down. And in this title, I used the title just to show off a new phrase I coined. And this title is weighty merely because fewer caveats in the title probably would have pissed off the wrong people in review. This is an example of a recent title of mine that I like, and I’m fond of this one too. They’re straightforward, tell you what it’s about, not too cutesy, and aren’t trying hard to be more important than they are.
I think what’s more criminal than a poor title is actually choosing to write a whole clickbait academic article. One that’s about something people feel like they should care about even though it’s not going to make a difference. I would place this one of mine in that category. By packaging the paper with fashionable fluff instead of a more nuanced story with a lot more detail, I sold the paper higher than it would have if I chose to write what I thought was a better paper.
How do you figure out what your titles are? Do you have any guidelines that you follow?