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Keep It Snappy

The shorter the title of a scientific paper, the more likely it is to be cited, according to an analysis conducted by University of Warwick researchers.

As they report in Royal Society Open Science, the investigators examined the 20,000 most cited papers each year between 2007 and 2013 contained in the Scopus database — for a total of 140,000 papers — and determined the number of characters in their titles. Papers with shorter titles, they report, tend to have more citations.

ScienceInsider's Dalmeet Singh Chawla notes that the effect is particularly strong for papers published in 2007 and 2008, and tapers off for newer papers, likely as those haven't had as much time to garner citations.

However, Nature's Boer Deng adds that one cofounding factor is that journals differ in their character count limits for titles. For instance, she says that Science papers, which are typically cited about 30 times, are restricted to 90 characters in their titles, while papers appearing in PLOS journals, which are usually cited less often, may have up to 250 characters in their titles. The Warwick team, she says, did compare citations from the same journal, finding that the pattern generally held.

"My working theory is that perhaps shorter paper titles are easier to read and easier to understand," lead author Adrian Letchford tells Chawla.

As an example instance, Chawla notes that two of the longest titles published by Science in 2010, "The role of particle morphology in interfacial energy transfer in CDSE/CDS heterostructure nanocrystals" and "Insects betray themselves in nature to predators by rapid isomerization of green leaf volatiles" have been cited a respective 68 and 67 times, while two shorter titles appearing the same year in the same journal "Quantum walks of correlated photons" and "A draft sequence of the Neandertal genome" have a respective 253 and 700 citations.

And Deng adds that Letchford and his colleagues chose the brief "The advantage of short paper titles" for theirs.