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In 1926, the article titled “On a certain minimal problem” was published. Nobody could guess what it was about, from the title alone.

Nowadays, one may expect something more descriptive, such as "Workspace Augmentation of Photon Impingement Through Impurities Removal".

I'd be interested when and why did the titles change, from the allusive style of the early 20th century, to the descriptive titles of today.

Was it a gradual change? Was it prompted by some notable event or influence? Was there a period when journal articles (or "letters" as it was then) did not have titles?

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    Of course, two examples are not evidence of a trend. One can cherry-pick examples of descriptive and non-descriptive titles from either era. – Nate Eldredge Apr 28 at 18:03
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Apr 30 at 13:59
  • We also have the slightly cryptic (at least for the layman) titles. Just as a challenge, try to guess what this very very famous paper is about: "On the electrodynamics of moving bodies". Try a little bit before googling it. – Gerardo Furtado May 1 at 5:25
  • @Gerardo Furtado To be fair, at the time it was about the electrodynamics of moving bodies. The name of the theory and its more profound implications came later. – LastStar007 May 1 at 13:15
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    @NateEldredge : They don't seem to be used as evidence, but more like as illustration. – vsz May 1 at 19:50
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There's an interesting discussion of this in the introduction to Titles are "serious stuff": a historical study of academic titles by Salager-Meyer and Alcaraz Ariza (link). One point they argue is that titles (as well as abstracts) increasingly need to be more informative given the growing production of papers, in order for readers to make quick decisions on whether to read them or not. If this is the main factor, the information content would be expected to increase similarly to the size of the relevant academic community.

However, there's something I find much more interesting hidden in the introduction:

Other scholars have stressed that titles should be as informative as possible in order to facilitate the process of storing, searching and retrieving the information (Black 19622; Mitchell 1968; Tocatlian 1970; Feinberg 1973; Manten and Greenhalgh 1977; Hodges 1983; Diodato and Pearson 1985).

The paper by J. D. Black (IBM British Laboratories) is titled The Keyword: Its Use in Abstracting, Indexing and Retrieving Information discusses how

Librarians have been accustomed to using systems, schedules, thesauri, lists of headings, etc., to define and classify the literature which comes into their keeping. They use these same methods to retrieve and disseminate this literature. However, within recent years these methods have begun to show signs of strain, and in some cases breakdown, due to the tremendous increase in the volume and complexity of technical literature.

Specifically, Black showed that a 1960s era (punch card) computer can be used to extract keywords from a title to achieve a similar efficiency as manual classification, but for significantly cheaper cost, and allowing better scalability. Black also writes

While the index may be practical and usable, we still do not know precisely how efficient it is. In its present form, the efficiency is dependent on the author's choice of title. <...> before long the engineer, scientist, or mathematician will realize that if his title is not descriptive enough his paper will not be used as much as it might be.

Of course, if this automation of title processing is the main factor, one would expect to see a significant increase in the information content of titles starting some point in the late 50s, or early 60s. A 1970 paper by Jacques J. Tocatlian called Are titles for chemical papers becoming more informative? looked at precisely this, by comparing measures of information content between papers published in 1948, 1958, and 1968. (1958 being the year the KWIC index, or Key Word in Context, was introduced.) As Fig. 1 below shows, they found no significant difference between 1948 and 1958, but very different results for 1968. Here the measure A, for example, is defined as the total number of substantive or informative words. On the other hand, Fig. 2 shows that titles with few substantive words might have started being eliminated before the introduction of the KWIC index.

Tocatlian (1970) Fig. 1 Tocatlian (1970) Fig. 2


I don't know if there is similar evidence from other fields that the introduction of automated indexing was an important development, but it strikes me as likely that the same mechanisms would apply elsewhere too. So, long story short, a growing number of publications and the introduction of computers may have driven a large part of the push towards more descriptive and informative titles.

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    Nice answer. I've wondered if making titles informative is a way of being respectful of the time of future readers and searchers (mostly those who don't want to read your paper). – usul Apr 29 at 0:36
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    Nice. Someone foresaw Search Engine Optimisation techniques in 1962. – Pete Apr 30 at 8:01
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I have no evidence for this, but I'd guess that a significant factor is that at one time, people used to subscribe to particular journals and read, or at least skim, every article in every issue. So the title of your article wasn't necessarily a big factor in whether people read it or not.

Now that the volume of published research is much larger, and especially since the rise of computer-based searchable indexing of journals, readers will instead search for articles on a particular topic. In a listing of search results, the article's title is the first thing you see, and people use it to decide whether to go on to read the abstract or the paper itself. Thus, it is now more important to choose a descriptive title; if a researcher cannot tell from the title that it is (at least potentially) relevant to their interests, they are probably not going to read it at all.

  • Reasonable answer. The problem is, from the comments under the question, we don't even know whether there is such a trend, to be explained. – user7610 Apr 28 at 19:36
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    When preparing a manuscript for a conference, the "information for authors" explicitely stated to avoid titles such as "On XXX". Descriptive titles are great when reviewing the available literature on a specific topic. It just makes live easier. – Dohn Joe Apr 29 at 9:06
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I don't know that this is actually a trend, but to the extent that it is - here a few possible contributing factors:

  • Can't use the same pun/quip more than once per field: After somebody publishes "On a certain minimal problem", you can't publish "On a certain other minimal problem".
  • Less familiarity and cultural commonality in research communities: It's easier to presume people you know, or whose cultural background you share, would enjoy, accept or appreciate a more creative or whimsical title.
  • Relatively fewer authors who speak English natively: I believe/guess/assume that when writing in a second language, you are less likely to creatively phrase things, particularly titles.
  • Relatively fewer works by individual authors: A group of people is less likely to collectively have the idea to use a create or whimsical title (though not entirely unlikely I suppose).
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    Should be "Relatively fewer works ..." ("less" is for mass nouns, "works" is a count noun, and needs "fewer".) – Martin Bonner supports Monica Apr 29 at 12:47
  • Re your last point, a group of people surely has more chance of somebody coming up with a creative title -- but also more chance of a co-author vetoing it. – David Richerby Apr 29 at 15:31
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    @Martin Bonner or rather, it should be "fewer", since the comparative is already "relative". – henning Apr 29 at 15:57
  • @MartinBonner Or "relatively few". – JeffE Apr 29 at 19:16
  • You cannot use the same pun you say? Leonard Carlitz used to publish two papers with the same meaningless title within 2 years! – darij grinberg Apr 29 at 19:36
9

Why didn't you title your question "On a certain trend in titles"? Because you wanted people to know at a glance what your question is about and click on it. In my field, there are at least a dozen new arXiv preprints a day. If the title doesn't look even slightly interesting, I pass. Giving an "allusive" (I protest at the qualifier "creative") is fine if you're a superstar, otherwise, you will just get lost in the mass of academic literature.

One thing that others have not mentioned: it's pretentious to give such a title to your article. If you write an article entitled "on a certain minimal model", it better be the definitive article on minimal models. If you don't, then you are embarrassing yourself by implicitly claiming that your text is on equal footing with other great texts entitled "On..." as was common at some point in math when authors wrote treatises.

  • +1 for "pretentious" reference. – spodger May 1 at 11:18
2

One aspect that I don't see mentioned yet is the change from academia as an upper-middle-class middle-aged white male club to a broader, more diverse group of people (that still needs to be more diverse). Clubs have in-jokes, secret handshakes, common interests aside from their common profession. Professional groups don't.

(Since comments suggest this isn't clear, I'm talking about the 1950s, not the 19th century. If you're not familiar with the Old Boys Club that made up academia in the first half of the 20th century, look at photos and count the women, non-white members. Look up the Jewish quota, which was still officially in place until the 1960s in some places in North America - and unofficially, in many places.)

When you could assume that most people who would look at your title had a similar background to you, you could be pretty confident your clever little pun would register in the context you meant. Today, hopefully, that's not the case.

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    Professional groups used to have special greetings, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gl%C3%BCck_auf ;P That diversity seems to be diminishing, nowadays. – user7610 Apr 29 at 18:52
  • Professional groups don't — [citation needed]!!! – JeffE Apr 29 at 19:16
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    That's a lot of fashionable BS around a reasonable (if not well-sourced) idea. ("Upper middle class" wasn't even much of a thing in the 19th century.) Yeah, British journals from the 1800s read like a newsgroup where everyone knows everyone else and common conventions and folklore are assumed for granted; yet the switch from "On some ..." titles to ones trying to be descriptive has happened noticeably later (1960s?) than this scene disappeared, and even the venerable Edinburgh Math. Society would have profited from its proceedings being better searchable. – darij grinberg Apr 29 at 19:34
-1

I see this as the result of online presence of people as we are more dependent on internet for any prior peice of informtion. So people search for results and google work starts here google bots pick most relevant and trusted content and produce as result for the users. Here comes bunch or results now users pick the most descriptive easy and picky titled post. So there is a hunch in market to get more and more traffic resulting more descriptive or say over optimised titles

protected by Alexandros Apr 30 at 18:42

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