Studies With Shorter Titles Are Cited More Often

Pithier titles may lead to greater impact factors.

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When it comes to writing scientific studies, researchers may want to aim for more brevity, at least when it comes to the title. A new study suggests that the shorter a study’s title, the more likely it is to be cited by other scientists.

In academia, citations are critical to building a reputation and career. Papers that are cited more often show that other researchers are using and building off of that work and it serves to demonstrate how influential a researcher is. Citations are taken into account during performance reviews and job applications and can determine where a scientist sits in the academic hierarchy. But while the factors that drive citations aren’t fully understood, a new study argues that those with short titles may have a leg up on the competition, Dalmeet Singh Chawla writes for Science.

“My working theory is that perhaps shorter paper titles are easier to read and easier to understand,” lead author Adrian Letchford, a data scientist at the University of Warwick in Coventry, U.K., tells Chawla.

By analyzing citation data for the 140,000 top-cited papers from 2007 to 2013, Letchford found that the studies with the shortest titles garnered the most citations every year. While researchers have tried to measure whether title length effects a study’s popularity in the past, their findings were generally inconclusive, with some finding that longer titles were cited more often, or that there was no correlation. Letchford, however, says he and his team examined a much larger sample size than previous studies, Sarah Fecht writes for Popular Science.

Scientific papers are often by nature extremely technical. After all, most scientists don’t write with the general public in mind and more likely gear their work towards other scientists familiar with their fields. But regardless of how big of a breakthrough a study might be, they can get bogged down by dense writing. If a title is concise and to the point, it might signal that the author is a better writer, which could make their work more attractive to their peers, Fecht writes.

While a brief title might help an author’s work get discovered, it’s unclear how significant of a difference it makes. Some of the largest and most influential publications, like Science and Nature, have strict character limits for the titles of papers submitted to them for review. Some critics have also argued that the study needed a larger data set, as they only examined two percent of all studies published from 2007 to 2013, Boer Deng writes for Nature.

“They have used a large dataset, which is good, but there are problems, and what you can conclude from these results is very limited,” John Mingers, a bibliometrician at the University of Kent, tells Deng.

If Letchford’s study is accurate, some scientists may want to aim for more elegance in their prose.

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