Many journal articles start with the phrase: "Towards a theory of...", as in these real examples from diverse fields:

"Towards a theory of innovation in services" (Management)

"Towards a theory of soft terms for the supersymmetric Standard Model" (Physics)

"Towards a theory of communicative competence" (Sociology, Linguistics)

"Towards a theory of parallel programming" (Computer Science)

My literal interpretation is that a full theory is not being presented; instead, the article presents useful elements or steps.

But I wonder if this phrase is overused and tired. It seems like it could be a mask or even false modesty, perhaps to deflect criticism. My inclination is to avoid it if my article actually presents a theory, or most elements of a theory. I would be inclined to use it only if the article was presenting a primarily a directional argument, i.e. "go this way, and not that way" to make progress on this theory.

Based on this data from Google Ngram Viewer, English books, it seem like it is declining in popularity: "Towards a theory of"-Google Ngram Viewer, English books

Question: Do you think this phrase is tired, and therefore should be avoided when possible? Or do you think it is valid and should not be avoided?

I'm looking for answers that are based on experience, conventions, and norms in particular fields and institutions.

  • 3
    I think this question can only be answered with opinions, not with facts. Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 2:17
  • I think it's a cliche - and to quote Randy Pausch, "the reason clichés are repeated so often is because they’re so often right on the money." Papers have been titled this way for centuries, (to my understanding) as a way of showing that the work is never really done. But again - that's my opinion, not a fact.
    – tonysdg
    Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 2:26
  • 1
    Not only is it not a tired idiom; it's neither tired (I for one can't think of a better way to communicate the same thing in a title) nor an idiom (all words are taken in the literal sense).
    – user37208
    Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 2:31
  • Many issues in academic writing style are matters of opinion. But opinions can be based on experience, conventions, and norms. I'm looking for answers that are based on experience, conventions, and norms in particular fields and institutions. Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 2:41
  • 9
    The answer to your question can be found in my paper, "Towards a theory of pretentious paper titles."
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 2:48

3 Answers 3


I think this phrase should be avoided when possible: not because it's tired, but because it is hesitant and unspecific.

A title like Towards a theory of branch sprockets tells me that the author wanted to present a theory of of branch sprockets, but they didn't quite manage and they ran out of time. That's not a bad thing in itself, but it's a weak pitch for a paper. The best way to structure your paper is to think of what what you're presenting and put that in the title. Here, you're thinking of what you wanted to present, but can't.

I would prefer a title like A partial theory of branch sprockets or A fast, approximate algorithm for branch sprockets optimization. The point of a title is to let me know whether I should read this paper instead of the other 50 papers I could be reading. These titles tell me what the return will be on the investment of reading. With the Towards a theory... approach, the authors are only telling me what their long term goals are, not which step they took towards this theory, towards which theory in particular they hope to be moving, what steps still remain, and so on.

  • 1
    Your version "a partial theory of" sounds as hesitant and unspecific as "toward(s) a theory of". It all just a matter of style. However, I find the term "partial theory" incorrect in many cases, because it gives an impression of presence of a theory, when, in fact, a research contains only some preliminary steps with additional steps due to be performed. The former aspect is IMHO much clearer captured by the term "toward(s)". Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 4:25
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    @AleksandrBlekh Fair enough, but that's because I tried to find a general alternative, when the problem is that the title should be more specific. If the branch sprocket theory has 15 missing steps, there can be 15 papers with the "Towards" title. A title like A solution to the overlap problem in branch sprocket theory is what's really needed. Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 11:30
  • Of course, if it's difficult to find such a title, it may to more serious problems with the paper. Which is why this kind of title is such a red flag. Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 11:32

Nice analysis. But, you would be surprised to see many other overused idioms too in publication literature like "A novel approach to..." where in theory nearly all proposed research method should be novel. Nevertheless such papers do get accepted for publication.

In the end it is the author and the reader who is to be concerned with the titles. If you feel that the reader would tire of the idiom, then you may not include it in your articles. As stated in your question, at times the idiom do very well fit the article. In which case there would be no need to avoid the idiom. But you may regulate the overuse of the phrase if you are to review any manuscript that comes with the phrase.


I think that, in a grand scheme of things, it is simply a matter of style and, thus, using that phrase is totally appropriate. Moreover, I don't find the phrase "toward(s) a theory of ..." to be tired or cliché.

In my opinion, it clearly captures the following two important aspects of a such research study: 1) what is the ultimate goal of the research; 2) that not all sufficient ingredients (elements) are present in the current study to be considered a scientific theory (or the study otherwise does not satisfy essential criteria for a theory). On the latter aspect, for more details, see, for example, the relevant Wikipedia page's section on essential criteria of a scientific theory as well as this research paper.

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