Conventional wisdom has it that paper titles must be catchy to attract the readers attention. But what makes a catchy title? What one finds increasingly in the academic literature are patterns like INTERESTING SENTENCE THAT COULD MEAN ANYTHING*: BUT WHAT DID WE REALLY DO? (I admit to being a culprit myself). The hope here is obviously that a more general or funny first part of the title will attract the attention of the average busy researcher, who is browsing among the vast amount of new literature for something interesting, to ones own research.
Figure: This title certainly didn’t need any additional catchphrase to attract the reader’s attention.
Yet, as Sarah Huggett reports on Research Trends, it seems that longer and punctuated titles are rather negatively correlated with the amount of citations a paper receives, and a further note by Renald Buter & Ton van Raan adds to this evidence, although they argue for a more detailed view on the matter, as effects may differ between academic disciplines (see also the corresponding paper below). There is also an excellent post by Bonnie Swoger on bibliometric studies that have looked at factors affecting citations in general, which I highly recommend.
So, should we stop using complex catchy titles? I guess one has to be careful, there are a number of confounding factors here. For example, high impact journals often ask for shorter and more sober titles. Overly “funny” titles are uncommon in Science and Nature, they leave the catchy title to the news features that usually accompany the original research article. Also, review and synthesis papers (which get cited more) tend to have shorter and more sober titles, probably because it is assumed that everyone knows the topic and people don’t need additional motivation to read the paper. This may create a bias in citations towards more precise titles that is, however, not causal for the citations.
Actually, I was wondering about cause and effect: I would think that, depending on the field, people might tend to use catchy “add-ons” to the title when they feel that their actual topic is so specialized that few people would be interested if they would get straight to the point. I see this tendency particularly in theoretical modeling studies. So, catchy titles might actually be chosen to compensate for rather specialized (I don’t mean bad!) research which usually tends to have a harder time in attracting citations.
* note: references to literary quotes seem to be a popular choice for INTERESTING SENTENCE THAT COULD MEAN ANYTHING, as data discussed in a previous post shows.
Buter, R. K., and Van Raan, A. F. J. (2011). Non-alphanumeric characters in titles of scientific publications: An analysis of their occurrence and correlation with citation impact. Journal of Informetrics 5, 608-617.