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The Title Says It All?

Screenshot Jessica Budke recently published an interesting blog post (Is the Title of your Scientific Publication Important?) about her travails with her second published article:

I just had a manuscript accepted for publication with the caveat that I needed to change my title. The comment was that papers with ‘witty’ or ‘cute’ titles are cited less often than papers with more serious titles. The editor mentioned that this had been shown in a study and I was interested to read about their findings.

Leaving aside any issues with this particular title, the research she cited clearly shows that articles with “boring” titles get cited more than “funny” titles. Science is inherently conservative, so this comes as no surprise. But what about the other world of personal impact, beyond traditional academic publication? Online, we are all competing for attention with a myriad of noisy neighbours, so an attention-grabbing title is probably a good start to maximising your personal impact. But does a flippant title inherently mean bad science? It’s the process of peer review which sorts the scientific wheat from the chaff, but online, peer review works differently from formal scientific channels such as journals and conference submissions. Online, on blogs, Twitter and Google+, peer-review happens after publication rather than before. As David Weinberger says, we need to:

Filter on the way out, not on the way in.

And post-publication peer-review isn’t going to happen if no-one reads what you write. So I say go for it and grab their attention, as these authors did.
But that’s my personal opinion – your views may differ?

AJ Cann
Alan Cann is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester and formerly Internet Consulting Editor for AoB.



  1. Our case review of a neonatal surgical patient on extra-corporeal oxygenation with presumed necrotising enterocolitis and subsequently found to have a splenic laceration was published in our internationl journal, The Journal of Paediatric Surgery. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17161174

    It was entitled “The exceptionally rare (sic) Common Scoter”.

    A quote from the abstract “Medical practice contains many useful maxims such as, “What walks like a duck, talks like a duck, is often a duck.” This case demonstrates that not all ducks are the common Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) but occasionally the exceptionally rare (sic) Common Scoter (Melanitta nigra).

    Did it get the article published? I don’t know. It has been cited twice in two important journals. Ultimately, it makes me happy knowing I’ve published in a Paediatric Surgery Journal an article about the rarest duck in Britain.

  2. I’m not a big fan of catchy titles, if only because they often don’t weather the test of time or cross-cultural transmission. Ideally a title should be understandable to most relevant readers immediately, no matter where or when they are reading it (in my field of paleontology, citing a 100 year old work is not unusual – I know this is not always the case in other fields). I recall one “witty” title that required an internet search to discover what the pun exactly meant (both the writer and I are native English speakers, but we’re from different parts of the globe – someone who wasn’t a native speaker definitely would be puzzled!). Yes, I still remember the paper, but mainly because I cite it as an example of a badly titled paper. And as for papers that use pop-cultural references in the title – will a reference from 2011 make any sense in 2243?

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