To Read or Not to Read?


(1)  Should I read that article? Sure! Oh no wait, maybe the other one?

Reference: Hallock, M., Bennett N. (2020). I’ll Read That!: What Title Elements Attract Readers to an Article?Teaching of Psychology, 48(1), 26-31.

Finding an interesting article to read while browsing academic journals may sometimes feel like searching for drinkable water while lost at sea. With the vast number of papers that exist, people must quickly decide if a paper is worth reading. Often, a paper’s title is the first aspect of a paper that readers encounter and it can influence whether the paper is read or not. Titles have various attributes or elements such as length; use of a colon or question mark, humor, cliches, or acronyms; and whether it contains relevant methods or results from the article. Researchers have been trying to figure out how these attributes affect readers’ attention and curiosity. So far, they have mostly studied the titles of highly cited articles. But studies that involve humans evaluating article titles have been scarce.

Which Title Attributes Make Readers Tick?

Hallock and Bennett from Purdue University Northwest tried to find the elements that make titles appealing to journal readers. They designed a study involving undergraduate students in psychology courses who evaluated the effectiveness of title attributes within their field of study. These students were asked to choose between a pair of similar topic titles. The titles used in the survey were chosen from the journal Psychological Review, and they contained several attributes (e.g., questions, colons, acronyms, length variations, etc.). Participants were presented with title pairs where each article had opposite attributes (e.g., a long title versus a short title, or a declarative title versus an interrogative title, etc.). For some of the pairs, the researchers modified a real article title into an opposite option. For other pairs, the researchers selected two real article titles with opposite attributes. These real title pairs were used to see if the modifications done by the researchers had any effect on title preference.

In the study, participants were instructed to choose the title they were most likely to select to read while browsing the journal. For example, they had to choose between the interrogative, ‘Do humans have two systems to track beliefs and belieflike states?’ and the declarative, ‘Humans have two systems to track beliefs and belief-like states.’ Another pair of questions were the colon-containing, ‘Retrieving information from memory: Spreading activation theories versus compound-cue theories’ versus the non-colon version, ‘Spreading-activation theories versus compound-cue theories on retrieving information from memory.’

So, what did the researchers find with regard to title preferences?

1. Length Matters!

The participants chose long titles over short ones. One possible explanation is that longer titles displayed more content from the article, thereby making the readers more informed. Interestingly, not much difference was observed in short vs. medium or medium vs. long titles, which may imply that a substantial difference in title length is necessary to affect a reader’s curiosity.

2. Colons: Use them.

In line with previous findings (1), the researchers found that the use of colons was preferred in titles. Colons can allow authors to include more information in a well-organized fashion and enhance the aesthetic value of the title.

3. Spell Out Tough Acronyms (SOTA).

The current study showed a preference for spelling out acronyms in titles, especially for unfamiliar terms. This result differs from a previous study which found titles with acronyms more preferable than those without (1). This discrepancy may be due to the limited knowledge of the undergraduate participants in this study, whereas expert researchers are more familiar with acronyms in their field.

4. Some Elements Don’t Matter.

The researchers found no preference for result-based versus method-based titles. Although a previous study found a preference for result-oriented titles, the conclusions were based on article views and citations (2). Perhaps more senior researchers prefer result-oriented titles compared to undergraduates in the current study. In the current study, no preference was observed for titles that were or were not cliché.      

Limitations    

One limitation of this study was the moderate sample size which used only a specific group of students from a single institution. Also, the way psychology undergraduate students choose articles can be different from the way experienced researchers choose articles. In particular, the latter may select articles that would be good to include in their own publications, whereas undergraduates may be driven by mere curiosity. However, the strength of this study lies in the use of actual human participants – the focus was what journal readers find interesting at the first glance and less about what they cite later.  

Conclusions

Like any form of writing, the success of an academic article is mostly determined by its popularity and impact among readers. A title is a vital part of an article because it is the first interaction with the reader. Writing interesting and efficient titles is an important skill that all academics should develop. Although the results of this current study are intriguing, they should be expanded to a population with different academic levels, subject areas, institutions, and regions. This line of research could then be used to train students to write more attractive and efficient titles.

Additional References:

1. Jacques, T. S., & Sebire, N. J. (2010). The impact of article titles on citation hits: An analysis of general and specialist medical journals. JRSM Short Reports, 1(1), 2.

2. Paiva, C. E., Lima, J. P. da S. N., & Paiva, B. S. R. (2012). Articles with short titles describing the results are cited more often. Clinics, 67(5), 509–513.Image: Flickr.com. Accessed 06.21.2021. Link

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