Monday, February 4, 2013

Toward a Taxonomy of Article Titles

In previous posts I have talked quite a bit about amusing titles (I promise that my next post will be on something else). I borrowed this term from an article that looked at the effects of such titles on citations and found that “highly amusing titles” were cited 30% less than other titles.

The authors of the article were careful to point out that correlation does not imply causation. Maybe these articles had less to offer contentwise—thus receiving fewer citations—and tried to make up for it in packaging.

We can establish causality in experiments. I reported initial evidence that amusing titles yield lower confidence in the associated results. Admittedly, this evidence is not very strong but it’s a first indicator.

Whether or not titles are amusing is in the eye of the beholder, so “amusing” is not a useful label. I propose to speak of descriptive and elaborative titles. A descriptive title is “A Comparison of Treatment A and Treatment B.” An elaborative title is “Comparing A and B: a Tale of Two Treatments.” It contains an elaboration, which in this case is an allusion to Dicken’s famous novel.

Elaborative titles can be segregated into two categories. There are functional elaborative titles and nonfunctional elaborative titles. The functional titles are illuminating because they shed a different light on the topic of the article whereas the nonfunctional titles make reference to something outside the article and often even outside the realm of science.

An example of a functional elaborative title is one that my graduate student Jacqueline de Nooijer came up with (once in a while I’m allowed to put in a plug for my students, right?). It is When Left Is Not Right: Handedness Effects on Learning Object-manipulation Words Using Pictures with Left or Right-handed First-person Perspectives.” Okay, the second part of the title drags a bit but the main finding of the study is that right-handers learn words associated with tools better when these tools are shown with their handle pointing to the right than pointing to the left. This is nicely captured by the pre-colon part of the title. I will write more about this study in a later post. We recently submitted the manuscript to Psychological Science. I’m hoping its editors aren’t reading this blog.

In the category of nonfunctional elaborative titles we find titles that stay at least within the realm of learning and those that invoke the domains of popular or even street culture.

Highbrow nonfunctional elaborative titles contain allusions to the literary canon (e.g., Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Tolstoy). Although the allusion does not add information to the title, it might lend the research some cultural gravitas. But it is unclear how titles like this will affect the perceived scientific value of the research. They might amplify the value if people “get” the reference and appreciate an appeal to high culture (literati amongst each other). It might have a negative effect if people find the reference gratuitous, highfalutin, or too obvious. After all, there are literally thousands of titles with “A Tale of Two” in the subtitle. See my earlier post on this.

Lowbrow nonfunctional titles are likely to only have a negative impact. They tend to lower the opinion of the associated research by “mucking up” the title. Sometimes quite literally so:

The critical reader will notice that this description can be interpreted literally, as it aptly describes the object under investigation. Nevertheless, the phrase piece of shit evokes a very different context than that of scientific analysis. “They said shit heh heh heh.”

Obviously, a scientific title with the phrase piece of shit in it will garner public attention. So maybe it is not surprising that the thus-titled article has already attracted > 88,000 views on the PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases site and > 8000 social shares. And perhaps this is exactly what the authors wanted to achieve. But does anyone doubt that the vast majority of these viewers were mainly interested the title?

It would be easy to conclude with a firm: with titles like these, the research is going down the toilet but we really don’t know this. To quote the stereotypical boring article ending: more research is needed. 


  1. Hi,

    Thank you for your highly interesting blog article! May I, however, add that what happened with the article in reality was quite in contrast of what you concluded. While we are sure that some thousands of the article readers were indeed only laughing about the title, what happened additionally was really surprising.
    Many researchers of related fields got notice of our work due to the discussions and shout outs on the internet. And because of this, they discovered the importance of the publication, which they would otherwise (most likely) never have seen, for their own work and the implications of the finding for the field . And with neglected tropical diseases, awareness is an important factor. Maybe in vastly discussed and very competitive, serious fields of science an amusing article title may come across as childish and immature, but I would suggest that in a neglected field as this one, some broad public attention cannot be a bad thing. Especially since most researchers from the field definitely have a very special kind of humor.
    And what's more, an unexpectedly huge number of blogs and journal articles about our work have given an accurate summary of our findings, drawn some attention to the field of neglected tropical diseases and noted the importance of our findings for the field ( And these positive reactions outnumbered by far the negative ones.

  2. Thank you very much for this enlightening response! It sounds like using this title was a well-reasoned strategic move on your part, given the nature of the field and given the broader relevance of the topic. I am glad that the positive reactions outnumbered the negative ones.

    In psychology, the use of this type of title (well, maybe not as extreme) is more common. These titles might lose their effect if more people in your field start using them. Then it might reflect negatively on the field. And this is what I am worried about in psychology.

  3. I'm enjoying the analysis. Thought I'd add this article to the discussion:
    It's a piece from the Atlantic talking about the contributions of Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman to physics. One observation that the author makes about Gell-Mann is that he was not just a brilliant physicist, but also a brilliant namer, and that many of his names were highfalutin (like "Quark", from Finnegan's wake) or funny (Quarks are said to have "flavours"). Perhaps what we're seeing is researchers' and the public's attitude toward "green" social science vs. innately "serious" particle physics (and I say this as a linguist/cognitive scientist). It would be interesting to do a comparison study with physics papers. Probably not physics papers authored by Gell-Mann or Feynman though.

  4. Interesting point! You're right that naming is critically important and can have widespread effects. Pretty much all I know about quantum mechanics is that there are quarks (and the Faulkner connection) and that they have flavors. Giving a theory or a model a funny and memorable name (there are many examples in the artificial intelligence literature) is a good strategy. This would be another topic of study.

    If you compare fields, you'd find that amusing titles are much less common in physics than in psychology and less common in psychology than in the humanities. In fact, there is evidence to support this claim, which I found out after I'd written this post: