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I'm not a physicist but I read the occasional physics paper. Coming from another discipline I find it odd that most article references in physics journals leave out the article title - this seems like a valuable piece of information to include for future researchers (not to mention their research assistants or library staff who may be asked to track the article down).

This reference style is recommended in the Physical Review Style and Notation Guide (PDF, p. 7) and the AIP Style Manual (PDF, p. 9) so I assume it's fairly widespread (although as a counterexample, the Reviews of Modern Physics Style Guide (PDF, p. 8) encourages an optional "long format" that does include the title).

Why does the physics community prefer this reference style, and what's the history behind its adoption?

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    Yet more evidence for physics having strange customs compared to other disciplines: citations are not ordered alphabetically.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 12, 2019 at 21:48
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    For Optics Letters, you have to submit two reference lists, one with the title and one without. The former is for reviewers, the latter is for publication. Jan 13, 2019 at 2:01
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    @DanRomik Also in engineering citations are--luckily--not ordered alphabetically. Luckily, we usually report also the title. Jan 13, 2019 at 3:43

2 Answers 2

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The title is not strictly necessary to track down a paper, so it can be considered superfluous information. Leaving it out saves space, paper, and money in the printed version of the journal. It also saves on shipping. (The names of individual journals are abbreviated for the same reason. Same goes for the page range being replaced by the opening page number.) That's the historical reason, as I understand it. Speaking of history, this practice goes back a long way, and was commonplace already in the late 20s and 30s, in journals published on both sides of the Atlantic*.

One might expect this to have changed somewhat with the rise of digital distribution, and particularly the newer online-only APS journals. It sort of has. In 2015 the print journals decided to allow titles in the reference list. As for the online-only ones, I haven't had reason to check the style guide all of them. However, I know that at least one of them, Physical Review X, even requires the inclusion of titles.

While Reviews of Modern Physics is still printed (and thus should prefer leaving out titles for references according to the above logic), it's a unique case in many ways. One of these ways is that it mostly publishes few, but quite long papers. Hence, the relative savings of leaving out the titles would tend to be much smaller than in e.g. Physical Review Letters.

Even with digital distribution, many of us still prefer reading a printout, so the paper savings are still appreciated. Another reason for preferring this kind of concise referencing is that it kind of fits how some (a lot?) of us think about papers (although I admit there might be a chicken-and-egg situation here). It's Brady's PRB from 2015, not whatever the title of that paper might have had. Also, titles are quite often similar to those of related papers, and can blend together, so they don't add much IMO.

*No special meaning is assigned to these decades, I just happened to have a few Zeitschrift für Physik and Physical Review papers from this time period on hand.

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    Even at the turn of the century (20th that is), journals such as the Proceedings of the Royal Society and others did not have titles in references. The titles really are superfluous to the reference, I believe.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 13, 2019 at 3:36
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    Actually, titles have become a lot more useful lately with the advent of google: You normally google the title, not the journal and pages (though scholar.google.com can be quite good at the latter). I suspect the old title-less style was optimized for looking the paper up in a (meatspace) library. Jan 13, 2019 at 13:36
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    thank God for shortened abbreviations as grants applications are usually page-limited (although nowadays the page count excludes the bibliography). For space saving reasons one also used ibid and all the additional Latin locutions. May 2, 2022 at 0:27
  • I think it very much is a chicken-and-egg situation. Most physicists like to identify papers by author/journal/year, but it seems to stem from the citation habit (which exists not only in papers, but often even in informal contexts like talks). This is purely anecdotal, but I get the impression that younger physicists who grew up in the online age tend to slightly more often refer to papers by their titles.
    – Aqualone
    Sep 29, 2023 at 9:40
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As a complement to @Anyon's answer, I would add that citations are no longer there only for the reader's convenience: they have also been hijacked by bibliometrics and such "administrative" purposes. When you judge papers by the journals they appear in, you tend to find journal references more important than titles.

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    That's unfortunately true, but IMHO the habit of leaving out titles is older than bibliometrics (at least the computer kind). See @Anyon's post. Jan 13, 2019 at 13:31
  • @darijgrinberg : Sure, bibliometrics did not make title disappear, but it may prevent them from reappearing. Jan 13, 2019 at 19:34
  • For purposes of bibliometrics, the title, and even the author, the year and the journal would be superfluous; the DOI (digital object identifier) alone would suffice.
    – anpami
    May 30, 2020 at 18:33
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    @anpami : I meant not only bibliometrics, but also crediting authors for the sake of their careers. For this you need authors' names and journal references. Jun 1, 2020 at 6:51

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