Saturday, August 1, 2015

Why do academic articles have such bland titles?

Thanks to recent advances in electronic search technologies, titles no longer provide the only or even the principal means by which researchers in many disciplines locate relevant articles. Yet academics remain shackled to the notion that titles must always include major keywords. Roughly 80 percent of the articles in the journal Social Networks, for instance, contain the word "network" or "networking" in their titles.
Cultural theorist Marjorie Garber notes that "for a journalist to describe a a scholarly book as 'academic' is to say that it is abstruse, dull, hard to read, and probably not worth the trouble of getting through"; conversely, for an academic to describe a scholarly book as "journalistic" is to say that it lacks "hard analysis, complexity, or deep thought." The same tension applies, on a microcosmic scale, to scholarly titles. A "journalistic" title—one deliberately designed to attract the reader's attention, in the manner of a newspaper headline or magazine feature—operates for many academics as a marker of intellectual shallowness, whether or not the content of the work bears out that prejudice. Yet a worthy, pedestrian title offers no compensatory guarantee of research quality. Indeed, a formulaic title carries a potentially crippling subtext: "I am a formulaic thinker." And formulaic thinkers, by and large, are not the ones who set the world on fire with their research innoations.
Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2012),  ch. 6 (quoting Marjorie Garber, Academic Instincts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2001), p. 33)

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