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If this title is funny, will you cite me? Citation impacts of humour and other features of article titles in ecology and evolution

Stephen B. Heard, Chloe A. Cull, Easton R. White

Preprint posted on 19 March 2022 https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2022.03.18.484880v1.full

Will you be pun-ished for a funny title?

Selected by Helen Robertson

How important is the title of your paper? Judging by the number of articles on how to construct a good title (which I have written about myself), you’d be led to believe that a concise, keyword-focused title is the best way to optimise views and citations – unless you or the editors make an error, that is. But what about humour in your paper title? Conventional wisdom suggests that funny titles or puns are best avoided, not just because they might not be optimised for literature searches, but also because science is perceived to be a ‘serious’ endeavour, not well-suited to silly titles for rigorous studies. Conversely, perhaps a funny title is more likely to attract attention (particularly on social media), leading to more views – but not necessarily citations. Of course, the humorous value of a title also depends on the comedic talents of the authors, but generally speaking: how does a funny title impact the readership and citations of a scientific paper?

In this preprint, the authors investigate the citation data of nearly 2,500 primary research papers, reviews and ‘other’ papers in ecology and evolution, published across nine different journals between 2000-2001, to assess the impact that a humorous title has on how often a paper is cited. Titles were scored for both factual elements (species name, geographical location) and humorous elements (how funny the title was perceived to be, offensiveness, cultural references) by different scorers. These cumulative scores were then compared to citation data.

Key findings

  • Citation rates varied a great deal between manuscripts: review papers were cited most frequently, whilst primary research papers and ‘other’ papers (commonly journal-specific types of papers) were cited less often. Of these, ‘other’ papers were rated the funniest.
  • Trends in Ecology and Evolution was judged to have the funniest titles – likely because this journal does not publish primary research articles.
  • In general, titles were not funny: just 414 papers received a humour score higher than zero. Interestingly, agreement was low between different scorers, with a concordance score of just 0.34. Even amongst scorers with a fairly homogenous cultural background, it is clear that opinions about what is funny varies greatly between individuals.
  • Generally speaking, total citations declined with the average score of humour. However, when corrected for self-citation and underlying paper importance, the authors found that papers with a funny title are actually cited more frequently, not less.
  • Offensive titles were rare (19 papers) and infrequently cited, whilst titles with a cultural reference were cited more often. Interestingly, titles including a political region were more highly cited.
  • Titles including taxonomic names had a significant decrease in citation rate, likely because it narrows the pool of researchers who feel the work is relevant to them. Titles containing acronyms were also less likely to be cited (interesting given the increasing prevalence of acronyms in studies!)

Why is this interesting?

On the surface this is a fun investigation into funny paper titles, but their findings are quite interesting compared to what we think we might know about paper titles. The authors of the preprint show that a funny title can actually increase a paper’s impact, given that authors are more likely to use a humorous title for papers they don’t perceive to be very important. In fact, authors themselves are less likely to cite their own papers with funny titles – a reasonable assessment of how relevant or important an author feels their own study to be to subsequent work. When corrected in their analysis, the authors of the preprint found that papers with a funny title were more likely to be cited compared to other papers with similar importance.

So, in summary, maybe save the funny titles for reviews or commentaries – or research that would otherwise fly under the radar. And just like Ricky Gervais or Chris Rock, perhaps your jokes won’t land with everyone, so skip the controversy and aim for word play – to which I acknowledge my own poor effort at a comedic summary for this post!

 

 

 

Posted on: 1 April 2022

doi: https://doi.org/10.1242/prelights.31724

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