Can you live up to the titles you choose for your papers?

Which of these two papers, on the same theme, would you read first: “Patterns of Vandalism during Civil Disorders as an Indicator of Target Selection” or “Mad Mobs and Englishmen? Myths and Realities of the 2011 Riots”? The former is wordy and boring, not reflecting the passion and chaos that typically characterize riots, whereas the latter is cheeky and informative, conveying a sense of an author who’s keen to connect with readers. Sadly, the boring title was chosen by my co-author and I in 1972 for our otherwise well-executed study of civil disorders in US cities in the late 1960s, thus consigning it to the dustbin of academic history. It reported on the only large-scale longitudinal study of small businesses that were at risk of being targeted and convincingly showed that there was an implicit logic to the choice of targets by people involved. Despite being published in the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association, it has been cited only 64 times in the past 43 years. By contrast, the “Mad Mobs” book, published only a few years ago (2011), has already been cited 52 times.

Venice vaporetto

On a vaporetto in Venice

I believe some, but not all, of the difference in the perceived usefulness of these two papers reflects their authors’ choices of titles.

So, what makes for a “good” title? Let me offer four suggestions, based on my experience with writing dozens of titles, good and bad.

First, I strongly suggest choosing a title that you must live up to – one with bold and even outrageous claims to importance. It should make promises about the payoff that readers will expect you to keep. Of course, the risk is that they will be deeply disappointed if their expectations are not fulfilled. Do not disappoint them! Set the bar high and motivate yourself to get over it.

Second, simple titles with an emotional resonance that surprise readers and foreshadow the paper’s “hook” are my goal. Finding them is arguably as important as crafting a strong narrative for your paper. Indeed, I have discovered that choosing a memorable title often completes the final piece of the puzzle that shows me the way forward for the narrative.

How simple? Entrepreneurship through Social Networks” is a 4-word title – with no colon and thus no follow-on description of its contents – that succinctly captured the essence of what Catherine Zimmer and I had to say. Published in 1986, it has been cited over 2600 times, garnering several hundred citations each year for the past decade. The paper’s narrative offers a few simple ways in which social contexts and connections can increase the likelihood of people becoming entrepreneurs, none of which were new to the literature in the 1980s. Evidently the title is a magnet for people who already believe that networks are important for entrepreneurship and just want a confirmation, in print, that they can cite to substantiate their beliefs.

Similarly, “Who’s the Boss? Explaining Gender Inequality in Entrepreneurial Teams” asks a simple question but doesn’t necessarily imply what the answer will be. From the words after the colon, it is clear that Tiantian Yang and I will be looking at men and women as bosses, within entrepreneurial teams, requiring people to actually read the paper if they want to know the outcome of our inquiry. We could have written a longer title, such as “Will Men or Women Be in Charge of an Entrepreneurial Startup?” Instead, the simple “Who’s the Boss?” suffices to provoke a reader’s interest, especially coupled with the material after the colon.

Third, I suggest choosing a surprising title. How surprising? Studies of babies show that even at a very young age, they have a strong sense of the causal interconnectedness of their world and thus take for granted a lot of what they see. By contrast, they are startled when their expectations about the world are thwarted and focus intently on where things have gone wrong. Authors can use this trick of confounded expectations to heighten interest in their papers.

In our paper on generational units, collective memory, and imprinting, Steve Lippmann and I took an old proverb and slightly twisted it, generating the title “A Rolling Stone Gathers Momentum.” Note that we only changed the last word in the proverb, but that change completely overturned the original meaning. Instead of gathering no moss, the stone now picks up speed as it moves along. The new meaning fit well with the paper’s theme, which was that a combination of imprinting and collective memory create generational units that play leadership roles in a region’s economic development over time.

Surprise can also be generated by conjuring up bizarre images, as Ellen Auster did in our paper “Even Dwarfs Started Small: Liabilities of Age and Size and Their Strategic Implications.” Strange as it may seem, the first part of the title actually anticipates quite well the papers theme, which is that small organizations are ubiquitous in the world and that few of them grow significantly. Auster and I discussed the ways in which small firms coped with their disadvantaged starting point.

Fourth, you earn a bonus if your simple and surprising title also subtly implies the paper’s hook, especially if you can do it in the words before the colon, rather than after. I published “Paradigm Wars: Donaldson Versus the Critics of Organization Theory2″ in the late 1980s, when Lex Donaldson had taken on not only what he called anti-managerial theory but also the threats to organization theory from social constructionists. My initial title was “Paradigm Warriors,” but I decided that I wanted to put the focus on the theories themselves, rather than the protagonists.

Fools Rush In? The Institutional Context of Industry Creation,” published in 1994 with Marlena Fiol, was deliberately posed as a question because we wanted to capitalize on the skepticism of the academic community at the time toward entrepreneurship. The “fools” in question are the entrepreneurs who create businesses which are the first of their kind and thus are pioneers in creating a new industry, if they succeed. We focused on the strategies that nascent entrepreneurs could use in the face of uncertain and possibly hostile institutional environments. Note that we were not calling such pioneers “fools,” but rather were using the term in the same sympathetic way that Johnny Mercer’s 1940 lyrics characterized the behavior of people who’d fallen in love. Or the people that Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers referred to when they asked “why do fools fall in love?”

Where can you find templates for possible article titles? When searching for titles, I turn to songs, movies, books, aphorisms, and proverbs. Some of my favorite titles have come from popular songs, as often the title can be used directly without changing any words, such as “Fools Rush in?” In other cases, just a few word changes are needed, such as in Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light which became “Blinded by the Cites” when used as a title for a paper using bibliometrics to assess trends in entrepreneurship research methods. Soelvi Lillejord and I used the title of David Bryne’s concert film “Stop Making Sense!” as a title for our paper on contradictory logics in the American university system.

You should avoid overusing the work of popular musicians and other artists. For example, in a study of papers in the biomedical literature that used song lyrics from Bob Dylan in their titles, researchers found that 135 articles used just one title (“The Times They Are a-Changin’”) and 36 others over-used another (“Blowing in the Wind”). I recommend doing a search on the perspective title you are thinking of using, to make sure that it hasn’t become banal or a cliché.

Books are often good sources, and my colleagues and I found that Terry Orlick’s In Pursuit of Excellence became an excellent jumping off point for our paper on sampling procedures in organizations research, which we called “In Pursuit of Evidence.

I am fond of classic movies and so have often turned to them, borrowing “Lost in Translation” and “Even Dwarfs Started Small” directly from the films. “Lost in Translation was a paper about the cultural mismatch in modern societies between a media over-emphasis on becoming an entrepreneur versus an under-emphasis on the difficult steps required to become successful at it.

Choosing a title that is simple, surprising, and foreshadows a paper’s theme takes a little extra work, but it pays off in two ways. First, in this era of scholarly information overload, anything you can do to motivate readers to give your paper a second look is worthwhile. Second, by not settling for a plain-vanilla, boring, and forgettable title, you push yourself as an author to make sure your story is strong enough to justify your provocative title. I believe the title is so important that I often delay writing a draft until I have found a title that not only grabs readers’ attention but also challenges me to work as hard as I can to fulfill the implicit promise it makes.

4 thoughts on “Can you live up to the titles you choose for your papers?

  1. Vinícius M. Kern

    Maybe this is my personal inclination, but I strongly disagreed with the starting appraisal of the two titles – “Patterns of vandalism…” being “wordy and boring” and “Mad mobs …” being “cheeky and informative”.
    The first is reasonably clear, comprehensive, precise.
    The second sounds like (bad) newspaper headlines: vague, designed to confuse and maybe attract variety readers.
    Only then I’ve read that the first belongs to the writer and is less cited than the second.
    I guess the reasons for the citation numbers are mostly unknown (and the publication dates might matter).
    Please keep choosing precision over bad advertisement language.
    Science communication is not facebook, although it resembles it a lot sometimes.

  2. Bill Williams

    Thanks for the stimulating post about a topic that seems to be somewhat under-discussed in academic circles.
    Regarding Vinicius Kern’s comment “Please keep choosing precision over bad advertisement language”, although one obviously wouldn’t recommend bad advertisement language, I would suggest that advertising can sometimes be a useful source of title ideas. The first part of the title of a paper about an entrepreneurial cork firm that I coauthored “Let the cork fly: creativity and innovation in a family business” was inspired by a Moet & Chandon ad.
    I would also recommend poetry as an occasional source of inspiration – we are in the process of submitting to a management journal a case study whose title leads with a quote from Lord Byron

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