As a burgeoning journalist, I was often coached to cut unnecessary words. College professors mandated that story ledes be short and snappy and never exceed 35 words in length. When I began working at a daily newspaper, my editors were constantly condensing paragraphs and reminding me that "it takes more skill to write short than it does to write long."
Adrian Letchford and his colleagues at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK, analysed the titles of 140,000 of the most highly cited peer-reviewed papers published between 2007 and 2013 as listed on Scopus, a research-paper database. They compared the lengths of the papers’ titles with the number of times each paper was cited by other peer-reviewed papers— a statistic sometimes used as a crude measure of importance.
As they report in Royal Society Open Science, “journals which publish papers with shorter titles receive more citations per paper”.
The impetus for the current study came from a desire to pen better papers, says Letchford, and to see whether good writing is rewarded in research. “As scientists, we’re all cursed,” when it comes to writing, Letchford says, as researchers hone their specialised knowledge but often cannot explain themselves to readers outside their own field.
While some quoted in the article agreed that concise titles can offer advantages, including increasing appeal to outside audiences, John Ioannidis, MD, DSc, director of the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford, questioned whether the findings were conclusive. He said, "I will continue to struggle finding appropriate titles for my papers without worrying about whether the title length may affect their citations."
Previously: A conversation with John Ioannidis, “the superhero poised to save” medical research, Shake up research rewards to improve accuracy, says Stanford's John Ioannidis and John Ioannidis discusses the popularity of his paper examining the reliability of scientific research