A correlation has been discovered between a certain attribute of an author’s title and fewer citations by authors.
In many academic disciplines the number of times a paper has been cited is used as a measure of its author’s prestige, which influences institutional ranking and professional funding. As a result, scholars are often on the lookout for tips to boost their chances of being cited. Naturally, the content of an article is important for that article’s success, but one study suggests that there is another factor that is less obvious but surprisingly important: the article’s title.
This study conducted in 2016 by Lakshmi Balachandran Nair and Michael Gibbert aimed to discover whether there are certain characteristics of a paper’s title that affect its likelihood of being cited by future academic researchers. The analysis identified 26 different title attributes and divided them into five categories: length attributes, character attributes, structure attributes, context attributes, and linguistic attributes.
The information was gathered by taking a random sample of 553 academic articles from five major business management journals. Each article was manually assigned variables that indicated the presence or absence of each of the 26 attributes in the article’s title. The citation count data for these articles was then taken from Google Scholar and the Institute for Scientific Information’s Web of Science and examined through multiple forms of analysis.
The results indicated that, for the most part, title attributes have very little correlation with citation count—with one crucial exception. Character attributes were found to have a significant impact. Specifically, the inclusion of non-alphanumeric characters (i.e., symbols that are neither letters nor numbers, such as punctuation marks) in an article’s title had a negative influence on that article’s citation count. The results also indicated that title structure had very little impact, but that a balance between the length of a title and the length of a subtitle had a slight positive correlation with citation count.
With so many academic articles being published each year, it is increasingly difficult for new articles to stand out. “Article impact…constitutes one of the ‘strongest currencies’ in academia and is coincidentally also an influencer of the authors’ own impact and reputation,” meaning that it is vital to make sure your paper is noticed and cited (Nair and Gibbert 2016, 1332).
Considering the effort that goes into academic articles, it’s a startling idea that an article might be ignored because of something as seemingly innocuous as the use of punctuation in its title. And yet, according to this study, a single non-alphanumeric character in a paper’s title has a measurable, negative influence on its chances of being cited by other authors. Nair and Gibbert suggest that these characters may be viewed as “part of marketing strategies to win the attention of the readers, which might even suggest a lack of credibility and frivolity” (2016, 1354).
So, the next time you’re choosing a title for an article, consider leaving out the punctuation. It may seem fashionable to adorn a title with colons, parentheses, and question marks, but those characters might just hold you back from the level of academic prestige that you could otherwise attain.
To learn more about the search for characteristics that make a good title, read the full article:
Nair, Lakshmi B., and Michael Gibbert. 2016. “What makes a ‘good’ title and (how) does it matter for citations? A review and general model of article title attributes in management science” Scientometrics 107: 1331–1359. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-016-1937-y.
—Eli Gibbons, Editing Research
FEATURE IMAGE BY J. KELLY BRITO
Find more research
Take a look at Sky Gallagher’s Editing Research article to read about an earlier study that examines the effect of title length on citation count: “Are You Giving Scientific Articles the Wrong Kind of Title?”
For insights into how citation count affects university rankings, read Chi-Shiou Lin, Mu-Hsuan Huang, and Dar-Zen Chen’s (2013) article: “The influences of counting methods on university rankings based on paper count and citation count.” Journal of Informetrics 7 (3): 611–621. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joi.2013.03.007.