Computers will read your research more than people will.
There’s an old myth that most research papers are read only by their author, their referees and occasionally the author’s mum. It’s not true. And if you’ve spent any time looking at usage data for journals, you’ll know that peer-reviewed research gets used more than people often realise.
In my former life as a journal editor, I used to advise authors to pick one of 2 kinds of titles to help get their work in front of readers:
- Catchy attention-grabbing titles (E.g. ‘The rise of the machines’ — which got your attention after all.)
- Descriptive titles. Something that informs the reader what the article is all about.
Personally, I’m drawn to the first approach because I think that you can make a stronger point by using language non-literally. Imagery, metaphor, jokes, rhythm and rhyme can all add power to your words. However, I’d like to explain why I think researchers should stick with option 2.
Consider that you’ve written a research paper and that we want to build a system to help readers find your paper. In order to build such a system, we need to get a hold of the text-data in the article, use it to characterise the article, and then match it to the interests of our users. This is the basis of a ‘recommendation algorithm’ and the title of your research paper is one of the key pieces of text data we can use in this way.
Modern recommendation algorithms vary enormously and can be highly sophisticated. However, they all have the following features in common:
- They don’t get jokes.
- They don’t appreciate imagery and other literary devices.
If you are a researcher, the number of services which are indexing your research papers and finding ways to serve them to readers is growing rapidly. New entrants in this space in recent years include Semantic Scholar, Meta, Dimensions, 1Findr and Scilit… and this is added to the many incumbents: Web of Science, Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic, Mendeley and more…
Here’s the important part: Every one of those services will read your work more times than you can imagine with the express purpose of serving it to those who want to read it.
So, in conclusion, it’s better to stick to clear formal descriptive titles when writing your research papers. If you lament the loss of the literary freedoms afforded by catchy titles, I recommend starting a blog.