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Analysis of a Corpus of Scientific Article Titles Across Eight Academic Disciplines Finds That Article Titles in Botany Can Be Much Longer Than in Other Disciplines, But If You Ignore the Outliers They’re Not That Different

The Annals of Botany has been put under the microscope, along with a few other journals in a study that aims to find out what is happening in titles of scientific articles.

The article is Research Article Titles and Disciplinary Conventions: A Corpus Study of Eight Disciplines by Robin Nagano in the Journal of Academic Writing. Academic writing can be quite heavily stylised. In the case of sciences, it’s usual to have an Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion in a paper. It’s a convention that has to be learned, but one reason for adopting it is that it makes it easier to read a scientific paper. Small details can be important but if you’re looking for some information about the treatment for a test sample, this division means you know you’re looking in the Methods section and not missing the information elsewhere. Are article titles standardising too?

It’s a plausible idea. The title of an article does a specific job. With so much science being found by search engine, and words in a title getting more weight in searches, there are advantages to Search Engine Optimisation in writing a title.

If this is happening, then what does it look like? Getting all the relevant information into a title can be difficult. There’s an article someone should write Information Delivery in Article Titles: The Use of Punctuation You Never See Anywhere Else. In fact the article finds that Botanists are more likely to write a title as one unit than two. Sociologists in contrast are far more likely to split a title in two.

Botanical titles tend to the longer side of the sample but the average 15, is a little longer than 11 for History, Education or Sociology, but there’s not a lot of difference. The longest title in the sample is botanical with 38 words, Conditional oxidative stress responses in the Arabidopsis photorespiratory mutant cat2 demonstrate that redox state is a key modulator of daylength-dependent gene expression, and define photoperiod as a crucial factor in the regulation of H2O2-induced cell death, so congratulations to the Plant Journal.* However, that’s an outlier, most titles fall in a similar range to other sciences.

Nagano finds that Botanical journals are least likely to use noun phrase titles. I had to look up what noun phrase meant. It’s where an entire phrase does the job of labelling a thing. An example from this month’s Annals of Botany is A new positive relationship between pCO2 and stomatal frequency in Quercus guyavifolia (Fagaceae): a potential proxy for palaeo-CO2 levels. Most scientific titles are like this, but in Botany you’re more likely to see a title like Female sterility associated with increased clonal propagation suggests a unique combination of androdioecy and asexual reproduction in populations of Cardamine amara (Brassicaceae) this a full statement, but even in Botany well over 60% of titles are verb-noun phrases.

Sadly Nagano doesn’t offer a reason why Botany might be different and there’s not much else he has to say about Botany. It’s a shame as the title might be the only part of your paper a reader might see, particularly if it’s a poor choice.

BioMed Central has some handy tips on how to write a title. Colby College has a practical guide, noting that a good title can include What you varied, What you measured and What thing it was that you were doing your experiment to. It would help make passable noun-phrase titles for an article. Ben Goldacre has helpfully summarised research into titles in his piece Will asking a question get your science paper cited more?

This however, it all based on past data. Currently title lengths are getting longer, but how will they change in the future. The rise of sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy suggest that there might be another way to grab eyeballs. Will the future give us scientific titles like: 4392 Species In The Amazon That Are Having A Worse Day Than You.

* I tried, but the title for this post is a mere 36.

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