Should I keep the title of my paper brief?

Researchers find an unexpected link between brevity and popularity

August 26, 2015
Source: iStock
The long and the short of it: if you want to be cited, keep it brief

Academics who want to rise up the citations lists would do well to come up with snappy titles for their papers or even fall back on textspeak.

That is the clear implication of a paper by Adrian Letchford and colleagues at Warwick Business School just published in the online journal, Royal Society Open Science, entitled “The advantage of short paper titles”.

Others before them have looked at whether brevity in the title of a journal article (and even the presence of colons and question marks), has an impact on the citation rates which can make so much difference to promotion prospects.

But Dr Letchford and his team have drawn on a far larger sample of 140,000 papers, representing the 20,000 most cited on the Scopus bibliometric platform for each year from 2007 to 2013.

The central finding is absolutely clear: “papers with shorter titles receive more citations”. Yet, since citation levels are obviously linked to the prestige of different journals, what happens when we control for this factor?

Once such adjustments are made, the paper concludes, “the strength of the evidence for the relationship between title length and citations received is reduced” (though not eliminated). On the other hand, “journals which publish papers with shorter titles tend to receive more citations per paper”.

The authors go on to speculate why this might be. Perhaps “high-impact journals…restrict the length of their papers’ titles” or “incremental research” gets “published under longer titles in less prestigious journals”. It might even be that shorter titles are (on average) “easier to understand, enabling wider readership and increasing the influence of a paper”.

Whatever the explanation, researchers and editors may be wise to sit up and take notice.

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Reader's comments (2)

Perhaps some of the REF 'research intensive' universities telling the world how wonderful they are should take a page out of Ted Mainman's notebook. A few hundred words & a diagram. Here's how to make the world's first laser.
Sorry about the first 'n' in the surname, Maiman

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