On Titles, or: Titles: Is There an Optimal Solution?

As a co-edit­or of the open-access journ­al The­or­et­ic­al Eco­nom­ics, Jeff Ely has seen his fair share of aca­dem­ic papers and their asso­ci­ated titles. Inev­it­ably Ely has con­struc­ted a the­ory on how to title a paper (or any­thing else, for that mat­ter) for max­im­um expos­ure, impact and intrigue.

In his hil­ari­ous tongue-in-cheek art­icle detail­ing this the­ory, Ely offers his price­less advice on how to decide on an aca­dem­ic paper­’s title. The con­clu­sion: keep it as short as pos­sible (one word, prefer­ably), avoid colons and avoid ques­tions.

A paper titled Law and Fin­ance is guar­an­teed to be the sem­in­al paper in the field because if it were not then that title would have already been taken. You can go ahead and cite it without actu­ally read­ing it. By con­trast, you can safely ignore a paper with a title like Valu­ation and Dynam­ic Rep­lic­a­tion of Con­tin­gent Claims in a Gen­er­al Mar­ket Envir­on­ment Based on the Beliefs-Pref­er­ences Gauge Sym­metry even if you don’t know what any of those words mean. The title is essen­tially telling you “Don’t read me. Instead go and read a paper whose title is simply Valu­ation of Con­tin­gent Claims. If you have any ques­tions after read­ing that, you might look into dynam­ic rep­lic­a­tion and then beliefs, pref­er­ences, and if after all that you still haven’t found what you’re look­ing for, check here for the low-down on gauge sym­metry.”

Two pieces of advice fol­low from these obser­va­tions. First, find the simplest title not yet taken for your papers. One word titles are the best. Second, before you get star­ted on a paper, think about the title. If you can­’t come up with a short title for it then it’s prob­ably not worth writ­ing.

The abso­lute worst thing you can do with your title is to insert a colon into it. […] As in, Tor­ture: A Mod­el of Dynam­ic Com­mit­ment Prob­lems. Or Kludged: Asymp­tot­ic­ally Inef­fi­cient Evol­u­tion. In the first case you have just ruined a sem­in­al-sig­nalling one-word title by adding spuri­ous spe­cificity. In the second, you just took an intriguing one-world title and turned it into a yawn­er.

The second worst kind of title is the ques­tion mark title. “Is the Folk The­or­em Robust?” This says to the read­er: “You picked this up because you want to know if the folk the­or­em is robust. Well, if I knew the answer to that I would have told you right away in the title. But look, all I could do is repeat the ques­tion, so you can safely assume that you won’t find the answer in this paper.”

via @TimHarford