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Should I Stay Or Should I Go? - Funny titles in academic publications are counter-productive

16 December 2022
Jaap Nieuwenhuis

Why are so many academic articles entitled ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’? Jaap Nieuwenhuis pondered this question as he kept coming across this name: since 1992, 408 articles have appeared under this title, which originally belonged to a song by The Clash. He investigated why it is used by so many academics and what effect it has, and published his findings in the journal The Information Society.

Creativity

Nieuwenhuis initially wondered why researchers tend to try to be creative in their titles. He suspected that it could have something to do with the ‘publish or perish’ culture at universities. Academics are largely assessed on the basis of their research output, which must be published in academic journals at all costs. ‘There is a lot of competition. Perhaps researchers think that a creative title will help them stand out more, and thus increase their chances of being published’, says Nieuwenhuis. 

Marketing tool

Previous research has shown that articles with significant or innovative results are more likely to be published. ‘Even if your paper doesn’t have those, you still want it to be published. After all, you have already done all the work and a publication would mean a lot’, Nieuwenhuis adds. ‘A creative title could then serve as a marketing tool to help the paper stand out.’

Efficacy

It is difficult to say whether the trick works: those ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ articles do get published and downloaded relatively often. This may be because they stand out more, Nieuwenhuis suspects. However, it turns out that these articles are cited approximately 38% less than those similar to them. Funny titles may in fact be counter-productive. Nieuwenhuis: ‘It is very well possible that other academics do not appreciate the humour or think that the funny title was chosen in an attempt to conceal poor research.’ The number of citations may also be lower because those titles are less easy to find, since the ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ part is taking up the space that could have been used for keywords. In other words, a creative title can help, but it can also completely miss the mark.

Cultural reference

‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ is not the only song title that is used regularly. A previous study showed that ‘The Long and Winding Road’ by The Beatles and ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan have been used as titles 236 and 128 times respectively. A total of 57 The Beatles songs appears in 589 article titles, and Dylan has contributed 201 titles based on 26 of his songs. This means that the same titles are used quite often. Why is that? ‘A song title is a cultural reference’, Nieuwenhuis explains, ‘and that involves a risk. The reader has to understand your cultural reference, and it is therefore safer to use well-known songs.’

Migratory birds

So why is ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ so popular? Nieuwenhuis explains: ‘It is a very good title, which could be about anything, from migration or relationships to cells. One of the articles I found was about migratory birds – you can really relate the phrase to anything!’

What does this say about the music tastes of the researchers? Nieuwenhuis laughs: ‘It might reveal their age.’

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Last modified:21 December 2022 9.56 p.m.
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