Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Part Before the Colon: Is There a Trend Toward Cleverer Journal Article Titles?

I joined the Society for Personality and Social Psychology last year, even though I am not a social psychologist, because I had to in order to give an invited talk at a pre-conference session of the annual SPSP meeting, which was held in New Orleans. I had a good time, despite having a bad headache during most of my visit. Social psychologists give lots of interesting talks, they tend to be social, and they also dress better than cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists. It was also fun to see which ones made a visit to the casino across the street from the conference hotel.

As an SPSP member, I now receive their flagship journal every month: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (PSPB—academics love to refer to journals with acronyms). One of the best parts of the journal, to a non-specialist like me, is the article titles. In psychology, as in many areas of science, there are different strategies for a good title. One is to concisely state the main finding of the paper or the main theoretical claim (occasionally formulated as a question rather than a statement). Another is to precede that kind of title with a clever quip, allusion, pun, or other phrase that grabs attention and orients the (potential) reader towards some aspect of the research you want to emphasize or that makes the work stand out. That is the part before the colon.

An example of this latter strategy is the 1999 article that Dan Simons and I published in Perception. The title was "Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events." (Thanks to M.J. Wraga, a fellow postdoc in the Harvard psychology department at the time, for suggesting the part before the colon.) If you are a real black belt in journal article writing, you can be like Dan Gilbert and combine both a statement of the main finding and a clever quip all into one phrase, as in his wonderful 1993 article  (with two co-authors) "You Can't Not Believe Everything You Read." If there were a best title award this would surely be in the running. At least it's one of my favorites.

I think all kinds of titles can be good, if they are done well. There seems to be a trend toward more clever titles, at least during my time in psychology and social science. Consider the latest issue of PSPB (volume 39, number 10). Here are the article titles, just the parts before the colon:

1. "Show Me the Money"
2. Losing One's Cool
3. Changing Me to Keep You
4. Never Let Them See You Cry
5. Gender Bias in Leader Evaluations
6. Getting It On Versus Getting It Over With
7. The Things You Do For Me
8. "I Know Your Pain"
9. How Large Are Actor and Partner Effects of Personality on Relationship Satisfaction?
10. Touch as an Interpersonal Emotion Regulation Process in Couples' Daily Lives

I classify seven out of ten articles (all but #5, #9, and #10) as following the clever title strategy. That seems like a lot more than I used to see. To hastily test this intuition, I looked at the tables of contents for the same journal 10, 20, and 30 volumes ago, using issue 10 in 2003 and the final issue in 1993 and 1983 (since there were fewer than ten issues per volume then). There seems to have been a sharp increase:

2013: 70%   (7 out of 10)
2003: 10%   (1 out of 10: "The Good, the Bad, and the Healthy")
1993: 0%     (0 out of 11)
1983: 17%   (2 out of 12: "You Just Can't Count on Things Any More" and "Lonely at the Top")

Coincidentally, I received the latest issue of Clinical Psychological Science (volume 1, number 4; TOC apparently not online yet) today as well. It also has ten articles, and none of them have clever parts before the colon in their titles. Maybe clinical psychologists and their subject matter just aren't as funny.

Of course, this is hardly a serious statistical analysis of the phenomenon, and the quippy titles might have just coalesced at random in this particular issue, or this journal might have editors who encourage this kind of title. I should also say that I perceive the trend to exist in other areas besides social psychology. But I have heard it argued that this trend towards cleverer titles—if it really exists!—is a deleterious one, since it puts pressure on authors to come up with clever titles, and makes reviewers and editors and journalists expect to see them, and therefore it may distort the entire research endeavor towards work that can be summed up in not just the proverbial "25 words or less" but in the much higher standard of "10 very clever words or less." I have no strong belief as to whether all this is happening, or in what fields of study, but perhaps it's something to think about.

If someone does the research and writes a journal article on this, they are welcome to use the title "In 25 Words or Less: The Effect of Trends Toward Clever Pre-Colon Article Titles on the Content and Quality of Research." Just make sure to cite this blog entry, or come up with a catchier title yourself.

PS: I am fully prepared to be told that someone else has already said all this, or even done the research relating title catchiness to citation counts or other metrics. I have anticipated this in my other article, "Leap Before You Look: The Surprising Value of Writing Blog Entries Without Doing Your Research First."


  1. Great post! And yes, you're right. I have several posts on this as well: (1) http://rolfzwaan.blogspot.nl/2013/01/overly-amusing-article-titles.html, (2) lhttp://rolfzwaan.blogspot.nl/2013/01/normal.html, (3) http://rolfzwaan.blogspot.nl/2013/01/amusing-titles-in-psychological-science.html. The third one has the kind of statistic you're discussing. I call it PAT (Proportion of Amusing Titles).

  2. Thanks Dan. I do not use clever as a pejorative. I think the pejorative form already exists: "too clever by half." As for tribes, I try to avoid joining things, but I'll accept an all-access visitor pass or something like that if you have one. And as for George Miller's paper, it's an interesting case. It used to be that people tittered a bit when that paper's name was mentioned, since the title stood out as being much funnier than a scientific paper's title was "supposed" to be. But now it has become the norm -- and Miller's title would be on the tame end of the spectrum. He had a magical number, I have gorillas and fight clubs, and you SPSP folks have much better still.

  3. I enjoyed reading this. I work in radio in the UK. In my field there is a growing trend away from 'clever' programme titles and towards ones which straightforwardly describe programme content. This stems from the pressure to make it as easy as possible for the public to find the right programmes online in a world increasingly dominated by search engine optimisation.

  4. My entire blog/catharsis is leaping before looking...

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