Funny academic journal paper titles ‘can increase citations’

New citation study overturns long-held belief that science is no laughing matter

April 13, 2022
Woman laughing
Source: Alamy

Amusing journal titles may raise a few smiles but are often seen as the kiss of death for a paper’s credibility.

But concerns that funny or quirky titles will lead other researchers to view these publications as lightweight − and thus not cite them − are misplaced, according to a new investigation by US and Canadian researchers that found humour can actually increase readership and citation rates.

The study recruited a panel of academics to assess the comedy value of nearly 2,500 papers published in ecology and evolution journals before analysing these papers’ citation scores. While funnier titles were cited less often, self-citation data suggested that this is because authors give humorous titles to papers they considered less important, according to the study,  which was recently published as a bioRxiv preprint titled “If this title is funny, will you cite me?”

When authors gave a funnier title to a work they considered significant, they reaped the benefits of significantly higher citations, the paper concludes.

“Humour offers an underrated opportunity in paper titles,” the study’s lead author Stephen Heard, professor of biology at the University of New Brunswick, told Times Higher Education.

“It’s peculiar that folks are often reluctant to use humour − and many writing guides advise against it − even though we’ve all seen a funny title make the rounds on social media or in the lunch room,” said Professor Heard.

“We worry we’re not supposed to use humour, that we’ll be looked down on, even though anecdotally we’ve seen humour work in the way you’d imagine it working − to recruit readers,” he added.

But does the worry remain that the paper will be mainly known for its witty title, however brilliant the science inside the manuscript? Professor Heard disagrees.  

“Rather than making someone remember the paper for its title, not the contents, what humour does is make more people read the paper, and thus have a shot at remembering the contents,” he said. “Nobody can remember the contents of a paper they didn’t read.”

The new results – which challenge several prior studies showing humour negatively correlated with impact – may give fresh impetus to the practice of sneaking allusions to films, pop songs and novels into scientific literature. In 2015, the BMJ highlighted some 213 references to Bob Dylan songs in journals, with the earliest going back to 1970.

But beware a hackneyed comedic reference − in 2020, researcher Mike Thelwall found the line from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet “to be or not to be” had been used more than 2,000 times in journal titles, with Tina Turner’s anthemic What’s Love Got to Do With It invoked 787 times.


Print headline: Ha index: funny titles get cited

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