They say never judge a book by its cover, but a new study suggests that you may be able to predict the popularity of a scientific paper from the length of its title. Brevity, it turns out, appears to earn a paper a little more attention.
Articles with shorter titles tend to get cited more often than those with longer headers, concludes a study published today, which examined 140,000 papers published between 2007 and 2013. It appears in the journal Royal Society Open Science. (See below for a list of the five longest, and five shortest, titles included in the study.)
Citations are a key currency in the academic world. The number of times other researchers cite a scientist’s work is often an important metric in hiring and workplace evaluations. Citations also play a role in determining a journal’s place in the scholarly pecking order, with journals that publish more highly cited papers earning a higher “impact factor” (although many critics challenge that measure).
Efforts to understand the factors that influence citation rates, however, are fraught with challenges. One problem is that citations can take years to accumulate, and so it can take long periods for even stellar papers to receive recognition.
Indeed, the authors of the current study saw that trend in their analysis, which used the Scopus database to examine the titles of the 20,000 most cited papers in each year from 2007 to 2013 (a total of 140,000 papers). For papers published in 2007 and 2008, the link between shorter titles and higher citation numbers was relatively strong. The link became weaker, however, for papers published in 2012 and 2013, which had less time to accumulate citations.
That difference largely disappeared, however, when they looked at citation totals for entire journals, and not just individual papers. In general, they found that journals that publish papers with shorter titles receive more citations per year (see graph, above). But there were exceptions: The medical journals The Lancet and The Lancet Oncology acquired high citation numbers despite publishing longer titles, and the Journal of High Energy Physics accumulated few citations despite using shorter ones.
“My working theory is that perhaps shorter paper titles are easier to read and easier to understand,” thus attracting wider audiences and increasing the likelihood of a citation, says lead author Adrian Letchford, a data scientist at the University of Warwick in Coventry, U.K.
But there may be other explanations, he adds. One is that high-impact journals, which are known to attract higher citation numbers, may restrict title lengths more strictly. Another is that research outlining incremental advances may be published with longer titles in “less prestigious” journals, which receive fewer citations.
A striking example of the short versus long title trend can be found be found in four papers published in 2010 in Science (the parent publication of ScienceInsider). Two papers with among the longest titles found in the journal that year, “The role of particle morphology in interfacial energy transfer in CDSE/CDS heterostructure nanocrystals” and “Insects betray themselves in nature to predators by rapid isomerization of green leaf volatiles,” have 68 and 67 citations, respectively. In contrast, two 2010 Science papers with more concise titles, “Quantum walks of correlated photons” and “A draft sequence of the neandertal genome,” have 253 and 700 citations, respectively.
A paper that had among the shortest titles in the study’s sample, “Prions,” was published in Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology in 2011. “There was no particular reason” for the pithy title, says Richard Sever, assistant director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press in New York. It was “simply a general introduction to prions—so I suspect the author felt no need for any additional words.” The paper was co-authored by Nobel Prize–winner Stanley Prusiner, he notes, which may have boosted its citation count to its current number of 103.
David Harris, co–editor-in-chief of The Journal of Brief Ideas, which publishes 200-word papers, says he is not surprised by the study’s findings. “The result itself isn’t a very strong effect,” he notes: Shorter titles produce only a small increase in the number of citations. Still, “I think shorter is better,” Harris says. “But there is definitely a risk that shortening titles for the sake of it can lead to ambiguous or nonuseful titles.”
Past studies, meanwhile, have come to different conclusions. A 2010 study, for instance, suggests that longer titles lead to a higher citation rate, but it only reviewed a sample of 50 papers published in medical journals. A 2011 study, on the other hand, found no clear relationship between title length and citation numbers. It reviewed 2172 papers published in PLOS journals.
One limitation to the current study is that it analyzed less than 2% of the total number of papers published from 2007 to 2013. As a result, even the lowest-ranked “most-cited paper has 16 citations,” Letchford says. That could skew the sample, because many papers earn no citations at all—regardless of the lengths of their titles.
Here the top five shortest and longest titles included in the study:
Top five shortest titles
- Myopia (The Lancet, six characters and spaces [CAS])
- Prions (Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives In Biology, six CAS)
- Measles (The Lancet, seven CAS)
- & 5. GenBank (Nucleic Acids Research, seven CAS)
Top five longest titles
- AMG145, a monoclonal antibody against proprotein convertase subtilisin kexin type 9, significantly reduces lipoprotein(a) in hypercholesterolemic patients receiving statin therapy: An analysis from the LDL-C assessment with proprotein convertase subtilisin kexin type 9 monoclonal antibody inhibition combined with statin therapy (LAPLACE)-thrombolysis in myocardial infarction (TIMI) 57 Trial (Circulation, 393 CAS)
- 2011 ACCF/AHA/HRS focused updates incorporated into the ACC/AHA/ESC 2006 Guidelines for the management of patients with atrial fibrillation: A report of the American College of Cardiology Foundation/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines developed in partnership with the European Society of Cardiology and in collaboration with the European Heart Rhythm Association and the Heart Rhythm Society (Journal of the American College Of Cardiology, 396 CAS)
- 2011 ACCF/AHA guideline for the diagnosis and treatment of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy: A report of the American College of Cardiology Foundation/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines Developed in Collaboration with the American Association for Thoracic Surgery, American Society of Echocardiography, American Society of Nuclear Cardiology, Heart Failure Society of America (Journal of the American College Of Cardiology, 396 CAS)
- Core components of cardiac rehabilitation/secondary prevention programs: 2007 update - A sci. statement from the Am. Heart Assoc. exercise, cardiac rehabilitation, and prevention comm., the council on clinical cardiology; the councils on cardiovascular nursing, epidemiology and prevention, and nutrition, physical activity, and metabolism; and the Am. Assoc. of Cardiovasc. and Pulmonary Rehabil. (Circulation, 397 CAS)
- ACC/AHA 2007 guidelines for the management of patients with unstable angina/non ST-elevation myocardial infarction: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines (Writing Committee to Revise the 2002 Guidelines for the Management of Patients With Unstable Angina/Non ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction): developed in collaboration with with the American College of Emergency Physicians, the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions, and the Society of Thoracic Surgeons endorsed by the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation and the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine. (Circulation, 397 CAS)
*Correction, 25 August, 9:51 p.m.: As the result of an editing error, the article incorrectly stated that review articles were included in the sample. The error has been removed.
With reporting by John Bohannon.