The Society for Research into Higher Education

What works for you? The choice of titles for academic articles in higher education

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By James Hartley

The range of possible forms of titles available to authors in higher education is considerable, but few styles are actually used. An analysis of over 250 titles shows that authors employ colons most, short sentences next, and questions least of all. In Academic Writing and Publishing (Hartley, 2008) I distinguished between thirteen types of titles used in academic articles and I provided examples for each one (see Appendix). But disciplines vary and some types of titles are more common than others in different subjects.

In this note I report on the types of titles used in 260 articles on research in higher education published in the SRHE’s Research into Higher Education Abstracts, Vol 50, No. 1, 2017. I categorised these titles into three groupings as follows:

1. The most popular format: the colon (60%)
a) Title with colon (short: long) N = 73
Example: Divergent pathways: the road to higher education for second-generation Turks in Austria.
b) Title with colon (long: short) N = 47
Example: The influence of curricula content on English sociology students’ transformations: the case of feminist knowledge.
c) Title with colon (equal: equal) N = 30
Example: Let’s stop the pretence of consistent marking: exploring the multiple limitations of assessment criteria.

2. The next most popular format: the single sentence (30 %)
a) Short (less than 8 words) N = 12
Example: Reforming university autonomy in Kazakhstan.
b) Medium (8-15 words) N = 53
Example: Assessing epistemic sophistication by considering domain-specific absolute and multiplicistic beliefs separately.
c) Long (16+ words) N = 9
Example: A structural model of the relationship between student-faculty interaction and cognitive skills development among college students.

3. The third most popular format: the question (10%)
a) Basic (N = 9)
Example: What brings international students to study in Finland?
b) Question short followed by long text (N = 11))
Example: Informed choice? How the United Kingdom’s key information set fails to `represent pedagogy to potential students.
c) Question long followed by short text (N = 7)
Example: Does independent research with a faculty member enhance four-year graduation and graduate/professional degree plans? Convergent results with different analytical methods.

Summary and implications
These results are clear. Authors in higher education use 3 basic types of title – ones with colons, statements, or questions, in that order. Such results are surprising, given the possibilities outlined in the Appendix. Undoubtedly work in other disciplines would show different disciplinary preferences. Titles in medical journals, for example, are typically longer and more technical than those studied here.

Several interesting possibilities arise from these findings. For example, would potential authors of higher education articles have more success with articles that have titles with colons (as this is the common pattern) or might they attract more notice by doing something different – such as using titles that mystify? Readers can judge what I decided by referring back to the title of this article!

Hartley, J (2008) Academic Writing and Publishing: A Practical Handbook Abingdon: Routledge

(Extract from Hartley, 2008)
Thirteen types of title

1. Titles that announce the general subject: for example:
The age of adolescence
Designing instructional and informational text
On writing scientific articles in English

2. Titles that particularise a specific theme following a general heading: for example:
Pre-writing: The relation between thinking and feeling
The achievement of black Caribbean girls: Good practice in Lambeth schools
The role of values in educational research: The case for reflexivity

3. Titles that indicate the controlling question: for example:
Is academic writing masculine?
What is evidence-based practice – and do we want it too?
What price presentation? The effects of typographic variables on essay grades

4. Titles that just state the findings: for example:
Supramaximal inflation improves lung compliance in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
Asthma in schoolchildren increases in schools close to concentrated animal feeding operations
Angiopoetin-2 levels are elevated in exudative pleural effusions

5. Titles that indicate that the answer to a question will be revealed: for example:
Abstracts, introductions and discussions: How far do they differ in style?
The effects of summaries on the recall of information
Current findings from research on structured abstracts

6. Titles that announce the thesis – i.e., indicate the direction of the author’s argument: for example:
The lost art of conversation
Plus ca change… Gender preferences for academic disciplines
Down with ‘op. cit.’

7. Titles that emphasise the methodology used in the research: for example:
Using colons in titles: A meta-analytic review
Reading and writing book reviews across the disciplines: A survey of authors
Is judging text on screen different from judging text in print? A naturalistic e-mail study

8. Titles that suggest guidelines and/or comparisons: for example:
Seven types of ambiguity
Nineteen ways to have a viva
Eighty ways of improving instructional text

9. Titles that bid for attention by using startling or effective openings: for example:
‘Do you ride an elephant’ and ‘never tell them you’re German’: The experiences of British Asian, black and overseas student teachers in the UK
Something more to tell you: Gay, lesbian and bisexual young people’s experiences of secondary schooling
Making a difference: An exploration of leadership roles in sixth form colleges

10. Titles that attract by alliteration: for example:
A taxonomy of titles
Legal ease and ‘legalese’
Referees are not always right: The case of the 3-D graph

11. Titles that attract by using literary or biblical allusions: for example:
From structured abstracts to structured articles: A modest proposal
Low! They came to pass. The motivations of failing students.
Lifting the veil on the viva: The experiences of postgraduate students

12. Titles that attract by using puns: for example:
Now take this PIL (Patient Information Leaflet)
A thorn in the Flesch: Observations on the unreliability of computer-based readability formulae (Rudolph Flesch devised a method of computing the readability of text)
Unjustified experiments in typographical research and instructional design (Text set with equal word-spacing and a ragged right-hand edge is said to be set ‘unjustified’: text set with variable word-spacing and a straight right-hand edge is set ‘justified’.)

13. Titles that mystify: for example:
Outside the whale
How do you know you’ve alternated?
Is October Brown Chinese?
Titles that mystify may attract the indulgent reader but they are hardly likely to help busy ones. ‘Outside the whale’ refers to the fact that the author is describing a typographic design course that was run for over 20 years independently of, and not swallowed up by, the requirements of Fine Arts schools in the United Kingdom. ‘How do you know you’ve alternated?’ is about problems that sociologists have when alternating between presenting an accurate description of the groups they study, and presenting their interpretation to the readers. October Brown turns out to be the name of a school teacher.

Irony, puns, humour, and literary and cultural references, are difficult for non-native speakers of the language to understand. They are probably best avoided in the titles of academic articles. So too are titles containing acronyms – abbreviations accepted as words, eg ‘Mental health for IAG providers’ (IAG stands for Information, Advice and Guidance) – and neologisms – words invented to describe a new phenomenon, eg ‘The control of mathemagenic activities’ (mathemagenic means ‘give birth to learning’).

SRHE member James Hartley is emeritus professor, School of Psychology, Keele University.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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