Humor in Scientific Publications

A couple of years ago, two researchers at the Technion tested whether or not funnier scientific article titles yielded higher citations. Their article, Amusing titles in scientific journals and article citation, takes the titles of over 1000 articles and has them rated on two scales, pleasantness and how amusing they are. They then checked to see if the articles that were funnier (as well as more pleasant) were more or less likely to be cited. Some examples of said titles:

Examples of Top Amusing titles that were also in the Top Pleasant titles group include: ‘Beware of a half-tailed test’, and ‘The unicorn, the normal curve, and other improbable creatures’. An example of a Top Amusing title that was not in the Top Pleasant title group is: ‘Modeling the days of our lives: using survival analysis when designing and analyzing longitudinal studies of duration and the timing of events’.

Well, the upshot is that more humorous titles actually yield lower amounts of citation. They discuss the possible reasons, including the fact that “Traditionally, scientific publication is considered a serious matter, and humor seems antithetical to it”.

Of course, humor aside, there is the additional problem of whether or not a paper is well-written. I would love to have evidence that well-written papers do better, but thus far, the only evidence we have is that bafflegab doesn’t increase prestige (Armstrong 1989). Not a strong result, but at least it’s a start towards an empirical argument for good writing in scientific publications.

Sagi, I., & Yechiam, E. (2008). Amusing titles in scientific journals and article citation Journal of Information Science, 34 (5), 680-687 DOI: 10.1177/0165551507086261

Armstrong, J. (1989). Readability and prestige in scientific journals Journal of Information Science, 15 (2), 123-124 DOI: 10.1177/016555158901500209

17 Responses to “Humor in Scientific Publications”

  1. Bryan November 8, 2010 at 3:15 pm Permalink

    Maybe the causality runs like this: researchers give their papers funny titles when they think the paper is relatively uninteresting on its merits in an attempt to compensate.

  2. Samuel Arbesman November 8, 2010 at 3:58 pm Permalink

    That’s one of the suggestions of the authors!

  3. Marc Abrahams November 8, 2010 at 4:35 pm Permalink

    The paper does not mention many big ifs. Here’s one: They looked at psychology papers. Might not find the same effect if they look at science, math, etc papers.

  4. Samuel Arbesman November 8, 2010 at 4:52 pm Permalink

    Good point! I would love to see someone tackle those questions.

  5. Cromagnum November 8, 2010 at 5:21 pm Permalink

    Can we get a research grant to study this?

  6. Chris November 8, 2010 at 5:31 pm Permalink

    What about inappropriate publications?

  7. Samuel Arbesman November 8, 2010 at 7:52 pm Permalink

    @Cromagnum: find the right funding agency, and I’m there!

    @Chris: these are ridiculous! I don’t know if those will get cited more, but they certainly will be read more often.

  8. Janneke November 9, 2010 at 4:17 am Permalink

    Another side to this is that creative titles are harder to find.

    When searching for a paper on a certain topic, you search with words you actually expect to find in there, and creative titles are less likely to.

  9. Samuel Arbesman November 9, 2010 at 8:39 am Permalink

    Yep, that’s another of the authors’ points.

  10. Paul Amores November 10, 2010 at 8:27 am Permalink

    My guess is that papers with funny titles are more likely to be published. They are subsequently of poorer average quality. Ergo fewer citations.

  11. Samuel Arbesman November 10, 2010 at 10:16 am Permalink

    That’s a great point! I don’t think the authors mentioned that. While likelihood to be published is difficult to detect, one possible direction would be to look at the amount of time until acceptance for humorous vs. non-humorous articles.

  12. albert coch November 17, 2010 at 5:31 am Permalink

    Great post, I have been waiting for that!?


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