long titles and colons

Ian Williams at the Guardian notes that book titles are getting longer, partly due to a marketing effort to maximize the number of keywords that match with a given title. This may explain why books have increasingly heavy subtitles, but why do we see the same phenomenon in journal article titles? Well, first of all, I don’t really know that article titles are longer or more subtitle-heavy than they used to be but any brief skimming of a table of contents will confirm that long subtitles are really popular. Check out the latest issue (the June issue) of ASQ, for example. Four out of the five articles have subtitles. The mean title length for the issue is 14.8 words. Although I didn’t want to spend my whole morning collecting article title data, I wanted to see if there is at least some evidence that there is a trend in lengthening titles. So I looked at each ASQ June issue, starting in 1958, to see if there was a pattern. I came up with these two figures.

The first figure shows the average number of words in article titles for the June issue of each year. The second shows the percentage of articles that have at least one colon or question mark in the title. Based on this really preliminary analysis, it does appear that article title length is increasing over time and that the use of subtitles is also more prevalent. The two are probably connected. As subtitle usage increases, the average title length increases.

I really don’t think that the lengthening of article titles is caused by the same marketing scheme used by publishing companies. ASQ authors are probably not as strategic about keywords in their titles as publishers are, and as you can see, title length was on the rise well before the arrival of the internet. Here are a few other possible explanations:

  1. Authors have become more precise. We no longer expect a title to convey the basic topic area of the paper. We now want specific information like dates and places.
  2. Authors use subtitles to differentiate their papers from other papers that have similar titles and use the same theoretical perspectives. As scholarly article output has increased, the need for title differentiation has become more important.
  3. Long titles have become institutionalized. Young authors enter the field thinking that subtitles are necessary to demonstrate that they belong to the field.
  4. Research has become more incremental. It’s easier to title a groundbreaking theory paper (e.g. “A Theory of X”) but empirical papers that add incrementally to existing theories need specific, informative, and wordy titles.

Written by brayden king

August 25, 2008 at 6:17 pm

Posted in academia, brayden, research

5 Responses

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  1. Interesting. I guess I use long titles to more carefully signal what a paper is all about — helps delimit its scope, highlight (potential) contribution and also perhaps targets the paper toward particular audiences/conversations. There might also be something to the ‘more incremental’ research angle as well; classic papers that come to my mind (e.g., coase, granovetter, hayek, white) have shortish titles. I am guessing there’s also a disciplinary effect (a quick comparison of econ vs orgs journals would probably yield a significant difference in title word count).



    August 25, 2008 at 6:32 pm

  2. a similar analysis of sociology journals from a couple of years ago:
    Moody, James. “Trends in Sociology Titles” The American Sociologist. 37:77-80



    August 25, 2008 at 7:03 pm

  3. […] few years ago, OrgTheory had a brilliant post tracking the trend of increasingly long article titles, and the growth in the […]


  4. I’m not positive the place you are getting your information, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or working out more. Thanks for great information I was looking for this information for my mission.


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    November 20, 2012 at 4:05 am

  5. In his introduction to the 100th anniversary issue of the American Political Science Review (the November 2006 issue), Lee Sigelman presented graphs of colon use and title length over time in the APSR.

    He also cited three articles by JT Dillon, who wrote on the topic in the early 80s. You can find his articles by googling:

    j.t. dillon colon



    November 20, 2012 at 6:30 pm

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