Field of Science

Is the Title of your Scientific Publication Important?

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.

The two studies I came across relating to this topic were:

In the first study (the title says it all topic-wise), they looked at a bunch of articles published in PLoS. Then they categorized the titles into three types: Declarative titles that include the main conclusions, Descriptive titles that only include the subject of the article, and Interrogative titles that indicate the subject in the form of a question. They also looked at the number of substantive words and whether or not there was a colon.

There main findings were that there was a difference between the types of titles in terms of the numbers of downloads from most downloaded to least Interrogative, Descriptive, Declarative. Whereas both the Descriptive and Declarative were cited equally and those with Interrogative titles were cited less often. Articles with longer titles tended to be downloaded less often but the title length was not correlated with citations. And finally titles with a colon get fewer downloads and citations.

Based on that, I think that the title of the first paper out from my dissertation will probably never be cited.  
A question, a colon, and probably way too long. I wonder if I also loose points for the multi-hyphenated word? Maybe the cool science will overcome the flaws in the title.

They also talked about the fact that anyone can download an article, including students or members of the general public who are interested in a topic. However, citations are only from other scientific researchers. Hence titles that are more easily accessible or are more interesting may get more notice online but may not be cited by other members of your field.

As for the other paper, that gets to the title of the second chapter of my dissertation.
Beneath the Veil: The calyptra cuticle matures before the sporophyte cuticle in the moss Funaria hygrometrica.

So my logic behind this title is that the term calyptra comes from the Greek word kalyptra, which means veil or hood. It is a little cap of gametophyte tissue that covers the sporophyte apex throughout development and protects the underlying apex from dehydrating. And the study focuses what happens in terms of the cuticle development on the sporophyte beneath this cap. I thought that it was catchy.

I used a similar version of this title at the 2010 Botanical Society of America meeting. My talk was really well attended and I even had several people mention to me that my fun title had caught their eye in the program and influenced their attendance.

In the second paper, listed above, articles with an amusing title were found to have fewer citations. It was ok to have a pleasant title, but amusing titles may make people think that your science is not rigorous or thorough. 

I am still a firm believer that a fun talk title helps to pull people in to your presentation, but I will be changing this title for my Ch 2 manuscript as the editors suggested. Definitely some ideas to keep in mind when coming up with a title for your manuscript. Not that citations are everything, but having other researchers read your study and then connect it to their own is important for integrating your research into the larger scientific discourse.


  1. Awesome post, and I love your title from ch 2...

  2. Interesting post. I've written about my thoughts here:

  3. These kinds of double-barrelled titles with a jokey pun, colon, then the real title are becoming increasingly popular. I used to think they were quite fun but increasingly now they annoy me - often the resulting title can be quite obscure. Or you can be drawn to a study think it will be relevant, only to discover that it isn't.

    Still those are a couple of great references!

  4. Actually, there's another article here that found citations were positively correlated with title length and the presence of a colon, so there's hope for your first article yet!


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