The Society for Research into Higher Education

Leave a comment

Where have all the questions gone?

By James Hartley

In an earlier blog (SRHE News, April 2017) I reported that the titles of articles in the field of higher education fell into three categories – ones with colons (60%), ones with statements (30%) and ones with questions (10%).  In this blog I note that the dearth of titles written in the form of questions is much more common than I thought.

Table 1 below shows the numbers (and percentages) of titles written in the form of questions in an assortment of publications and disciplines.  (Further details are provided in Hartley 2018a, b, and Hartley and Morgan, 2018.)

It can be seen, with this sample of 950 titles, that only 77 (8%) of them were written in the form of questions.  Even this figure, however, is much higher than the 2.3% reported by Cook and Plourde (2016), who studied 7,845 such titles in sixty academic journals.

Table 1.  The numbers (and percentages) of recent article or book titles with question marks.


Source    No of titles No of titles with ?s %
New Scientist 48 8 17
London Review of Books 57 0 0
Times Literary Supplement 48 8 17
Psychology PhD Theses 100 6 6
Psychology Journals 380 23 6
History Journals 187 31 17
Postscript (a book catalogue) 130 1 0.76
Overall 950 77 8

Titles with questions can frequently be answered ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ or (more typically in Education and Psychology) ‘it all depends’. In the field of journalism Betteridge (2009) postulated a witty law that stated that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘No’” (Betteridge, 2009).  This, however, is not the case here.  Indeed, Cook & Plourde (2016) reported in their study of such titles in academic articles that most of them were more often answered with a “Yes” rather than a “No”.

Posing a question in the title is often seen as a way of drawing the readers’ attention to the issue in hand.  I find it surprising that it is not done more often. Any comments?

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



Betteridge, I (2009)  ‘TechCrunch: Irresponsible journalism’

Cook, JM and Plourde, D (2016) ‘Do scholars follow Betteridge’s Law? The use of questions in journal article titles’ Scientometrics 108: 1119-1128

Hartley, J (2017) ‘What works for you?  The choice of titles for academic articles in higher education’  SRHE News, April 2017: 19-22

Hartley, J (2018a) ‘Are psychologists afraid of asking questions?’ (Paper available from the author.)

Hartley, J (2018b) ‘Choosing a title for your thesis. What are the most frequent formats?’  (Paper available from the author.)

Hartley, J and Morgan P (2018) ‘Are historians afraid of posing questions? The titles of articles in history journals’  (Paper available from the authors.)

Leave a comment

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

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 %) Continue reading