Nature reveals one of the weird truths about the way we do science. Publishing research is sometimes referred to as “the academic conversation,” and analysis proves that if you want to be part of that conversation, it helps if you’ve got something to say … but also, if you can say it in a funny way:
“One place where we often see humour is in titles, but there’s a very small amount of literature about whether this is a good idea,” says lead author Stephen Heard, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Canada.
To investigate whether having a funny title could boost a paper’s readership and citations, Heard and his colleagues asked volunteers to score the titles of 2,439 papers published in 2000 and 2001 in 9 ecology and evolution journals according to how amusing they were. The scorers assessed humour on a seven-point scale, from zero (for ‘completely serious’ titles) to six (‘extremely funny’). The researchers then looked for a link between papers’ humour scores and the number of citations they had received, including self-citations by their own authors.
Papers with funny titles were cited slightly less often than their more serious counterparts. However, papers with more amusing titles also tended to have fewer self-citations, which led Heard’s team to speculate that scientists might give funnier titles to less important papers. “Our assumption is that authors who don’t cite their own papers subsequently are pretty much revealing that they don’t think that those are their most important papers,” Heard says.
After controlling for self-citations as a measure of a paper’s importance, the researchers found that articles with funny titles are in fact cited more than those with serious titles…. For example, papers with titles that got a humour score of six had nearly twice as many citations on average as those whose titles got a humour score of four.
You can read a pre-print version of Heard’s research here, at bioRxiv. (And yes, the article does have a funny title.)