[Cute Title]: [Serious Title]

Science paper titles are dusty affairs as far as the general reader is concerned. Take “Structural basis of lipoprotein signal peptidase II action and inhibition by the antibiotic globomycin”, an actual recent title. To people in the know that might sound terribly exciting, but outside the field it falls a bit flat.

Some authors try to spice their titles up, using a familiar phrase or riffing on one. This is followed by the but-seriously-colon, and a more solemn title. My current favorite is “Waiting for Merlot: Anticipatory Consumption of Experiential and Material Purchases” (Kumar et al. 2014).

It’s the academic equivalent of this:

ancom1 ancom2


Writing an entire paper and only then searching for a cute title is sub-optimal, as far as title-writing goes. I propose a new lab-game: first come up with the phrase or lyric or song title, then write the paper around it.

I wrote some code to randomly produce a known song title and tried it on myself. The code snippet generated “A walk on the wild side”.

Hmmm, how about:

“A Walk on the Wild Side: Random Walks with Anomalous Diffusion Capture Decision Making under Duress”

Before sitting down to write that brilliant piece of science I wondered: did someone already steal my phrase? Turns out more than one person did. The following are actual papers:

  • Walk on the WILD side: How wireless handhelds may change computer-supported collaborative learning (333 citations)
  • Cereal breeding takes a walk on the wild side (203 citations)
  • Walk on the wild side: a critical geography of domestication (158 citations)

And that made me wonder further, just how many phrases have already been used?

I went over Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time and considered the top 100. I disqualified titles that were just one word (e.g. “Crazy”) or ones that could easily be part of a title unrelated to the song (e.g. “The Message”). Out of the top 100 songs, 36 were already used as paper titles, 35 were not , and 29 were disqualified:


For fun, try to guess which of the following are actual paper titles:

  • When doves cry: International rivalry, unreciprocated cooperation, and leadership turnover
  • How does it feel to be like a rolling stone? Ten questions about dispersal evolution
  • Every Breath You Take… : The Demographics of Toxic Air Releases in Southern California
  • I still haven’t found what I’m looking for: Parental privacy invasion predicts reduced parental knowledge.
  • Great balls of fire and the vicious cycle: a study of the effects of cycling on male fertility
  • All along the watchtower: on the regulation of apoptosis regulators
  • Blowing in the wind: a field test of overland dispersal and colonization by aquatic invertebrates
  • Tolerance checkpoints in B‐cell development: Johnny B good
  • Strawberry fields forever? Urban agriculture in developed countries: a review
  • A bridge over troubled water: reconsolidation as a link between cognitive and neuroscientific memory research traditions

Answer: ɯǝɥʇ ɟo llɐ

On average, the 36 papers that used such titles had a median of 100 citations (mean of 132), though in cases where there was more than one paper I took the one with the most citations. It would be interesting to compare this set to a random sample, to see if it is worth using a cute title to boost citations.

This title pattern might also be a relatively recent phenomena – almost all the papers I found are from after the year 2000 (again, taking the most highly cited papers as the reference in cases of multiple titles). I don’t want to stake too much on this claim though, given the small sample.

One can correlate the Rolling Stone rank and number of citations. Supposedly this shows the higher the rank, the more citations you’ll get:


…But that’s largely driven by the first few highly ranked songs, and I would only take it as seriously as the figure aesthetic suggests.

One could also try correlating the number of citations with a more objective popularity measure, such as position in the charts, or the amount of money a song has made. If I ever get around to doing a full analysis, I’ll probably call it:

Cite Me Maybe: The Effects of ‘Cute:Serious’ Academic Title Constructs on Citations and Their Use Over Time

Tomer Ullman is a post-doctoral associate in the Dept. of Psychology at Harvard and the the Dept. of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. 


  1. 1. “She’s particularly proud of this one”

    And rightly so, that’s a great title. It made me look up some other drink related titles, and I found:

    * Shaken, not stirred: mechanical stress testing of an IgG1 antibody (176 citations)

    2. “Been established for a while…more likely to get accepted”

    Yeah, I didn’t really mean to put an emphasis on ‘cute’ so much as the pattern of Phrase: Title. Also, are you saying that “it’s been established” based on anecdotal evidence, or is there some actual work done on this? I also get that sense anecdotally, but I’d love to see something more formal on this, if it has been done.

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