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