Sexy Science and Friends with Benefits: Is an Eye-catching Title Ever a Good Idea?

Did I get your attention? I thought I’d choose a title to stand out. I’ve been away – Canterbury, Kawasaki, Yokohama, Tokyo, Barcelona and, in between, Peckham – so I haven’t blogged for a few weeks. And since a few people have told me they actually read these blogs, I felt there was no harm in announcing my return with a little pizazz. I ought to come clean; I won’t be writing about sex, not much about science or even really friends with benefits. Given that some people are actually reading this, I ought to try and retain a modicum of respectability.  Instead I’m writing about paper titles. Specifically, the weird, funny, and not-so-funny, smart-arse, attention-grabbing ones.

The idea came from a question I received at the Early Career Researcher (EPP) Symposium in Yokohama (at the International Convention of Psychology, #ICP2016 – photo below). Interestingly, we touched on the same topic at a subsequent Wiley Executive meeting in Tokyo a week later (again, a “proof of life” picture below). So, how useful is a jokey or eye-catching title for disseminating your research?

ICP Yokohama Leman Wiley Tokyo Leman

ICP Seminar, Yokohama, 23 July 2016 and Wiley Executive Seminar, Tokyo, 31 July 2016

Now, I’ve nothing against a bit of fun. Let’s start with a few examples of the titles I mean. There are a few nice summaries of these I can point to. First from Rolf Zwaan’s blog: Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective-Assimilation Hypothesis;  and Who Took the “×” out of Expectancy-Value Theory?: A Psychological Mystery, a Substantive-Methodological Synergy, and a Cross-National Generalization; and the fabulous, Chicks Like Consonant Music, which actually turns out actually just to be a paper about chickens liking music… Lastly, You Can’t Always Get What You Want: Infants Understand Failed Goal-Directed Actions – a prime example of the superfluous pre-colon title! See, Dillon (1981), for more on that.

There’s a collection of funny, offensive and darker titles here. They include: You Probably Think This Paper’s About You: Narcissists’ Perceptions of Their Personality and Reputation. Now that’s a good one! And, not so good, and actually a little disturbing; Friends With Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership. One wonders whether, in the cold light of day, that paper turned out to be a career high or career low.

Ashley & Pudsey

Ashley and Pudsey: Friends with Benefits?

Common wisdom has it that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I’m not sure about that. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If you’re a Kardashian, then probably anything that will keep you on the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame is acceptable. Sometimes it feels like we live in a Trumpesque universe where, to paraphrase Mrs Wormwood from Tim Minchin’s Matilda, “content has never been less important”. But if your ambitions extend beyond narrow self-interest, and I appreciate not all academics’ ambitions do, some publicity can be damaging. An eye-catching title for your paper can certainly backfire.

Before I became Head of Department in my previous job, to get to know my staff, I decided to read one paper from every member of the department. I’ve always felt that what you find in people’s writing, even within the rigid confines of APA and scientific report format, tells you something about the person. For me writing is about voice (or, sometimes, the lack of it) and it is what lies between the lines that often interests me most. For that process I chose papers kind of at random although I must admit that with around 50 papers to read, many outside my area of research, I was a bit of a sucker for an eye-catching title. It was a valuable process in many ways. One abiding impression from that process was that those with the flashy, jokey, punning or eye-catching titles typically reported the least interesting, least innovative and most incremental, slight pieces of research. At least that was my view; they may well have floated other people’s boats.

So back to the question; is an eye-catching title a good idea? In these days of metrical machismo, where the feeble-minded view the size of your H-index as a mark of intellectual virility, anything that gives a researcher the strongest chance of success is worth pursuing. But my advice in Yokohama, and still now, is whatever you do make sure your title is accurate and your work is worthwhile. Ultimately, it’s irritating to plough through a paper that fails to deliver on it’s promise. And, when push comes to shove, what matters is the quality and substance of the work. If you are doing important work, it will have impact. Believe in it.

It turns out psychology papers with “funny” or eye-catching titles are cited less frequently than others anyway (Sagi & Yechiam, 2016). Maybe that’s because authors try to spin a mediocre paper. Whatever the reason, I am sure it’s not a hard and fast rule. Just, if you do go for funny, make it really, really good.