100 Years of Titles in the Journal of Applied Psychology
Kyle McNeal, Jordan Stoeger, and Amanda Kreun
To commemorate the centennial of the Journal of Applied Psychology, we analyzed 9,515 article titles to examine how JAP titles have changed over the last 100 years. We found dramatic increases in title length, use of the colon and question mark, and informality over time. We also found small increases in average word length. Leading organizational psychologists, including several current and former JAP editors, provide commentary on the causes and implications of these findings.
If you open a 1920s issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology and turn to the table of contents, what you find will be strikingly dissimilar to the JAP of today. Over its 100 year history, the Journal of Applied Psychology has borne witness to a number of changes in the field, and these changes have been reflected in the research accepted for publication to the journal. Some of these changes, of course, relate to the substance of the research itself, such as the shifting prevalence of various topics over time and the advancements in methodological and analytical techniques employed by our researchers. That, however, is not what this article is about. Instead, we focus on a more subtle manner in which JAP articles have evolved over the last century: The titles are different.
Depending on who you ask, an article’s title is either an incredibly important decision on the part of a researcher or an inconsequential afterthought. It may be argued that titles play a fairly critical role in the success of research endeavors, as they partially determine to what extent that article conveys the importance of the study, attract readers, and appear in response to database searches. On the other hand, a principled opinion may be that the substance of the research ought to speak for itself and that the function of a title should merely be to convey the content of that research. Gilad Chen, current editor of JAP, weighed in on this issue by stating: “In the grand scheme of things, I do not believe titles are all that critical[...] although they may play some role in the ‘first impressions’ readers make of articles.”
Whether of any great importance in the grand scheme of things, article titles have certainly changed since JAP’s inception. A cursory comparison of the most recent issue of JAP to earlier issues reveals obvious differences in length, punctuation, and tone. In commemoration of JAP’s 100th birthday, we endeavored to explore the characteristics of article titles in JAP and examine how these characteristics have evolved over time. This is not the first time journal article titles have been the subject of investigation—researchers in other fields have explored the content of article titles (Siegel, Thacker, Goodman, & Gillespie, 2006), the relationship between title characteristics and citation count (Rostami, Mohammadpoorasl, & Hajizadeh, 2014; Subotic & Mukherjee, 2014), the role of humor in article titles (Sagi & Yechiam, 2008), and much more. However, the current study is unique in its focus on the field of organizational psychology and its longitudinal examination of title trends over an extended period of time.
In our investigation, we focused on four attributes of article titles which we suspected were likely to have increased during JAP’s century of publication. These include title length, average word length, use of punctuation (including colons, question marks, and exclamation marks), and informal language or tone. In addition to reporting the results of our analysis, we also offer commentary provided by prominent members of the SIOP community to help understand the causes and potential implications of our findings.
Article titles were obtained from each issue’s table of contents, accessed via the American Psychological Association website, beginning with Volume 1 Issue 1 (March, 1917) and ending with Volume 101 Issue 10 (October 2016). In total there were 9,515 JAP articles published during this time. Some nonstandard types of articles (e.g., book reviews, editor’s notes, corrections) were removed from analyses, as the titles of these atypical article types would have obscured the results. After removing these, 8,266 article titles remained for analysis. For each of these titles, we calculated the number of characters, number of words, and average word length. A word was operationalized as any string of characters not separated by a space; thus, words including dashes (e.g., “meta-analysis” and “self-efficacy”) were counted as a single word. Additionally, each title was coded for whether it contained a question mark, colon, or exclamation mark (1 = Yes, 0 = No). The aforementioned calculations and coding were conducted using functions in Excel.
Finally, on a subset of 1,000 articles, we categorized each title according to whether it did or did not include informal or nonacademic language. For this analysis, we randomly selected 100 articles from each decade of JAP titles. Two raters independently coded each article for whether it included any nonacademic or informal language, such as the inclusion of idioms, first- or second-person phrases, rhetorical questions, humor, or everyday vernacular. Agreement between raters was 95.7%. In cases where there was disagreement, a third rater determined whether the title would be coded as academic or informal language.
Title length was operationalized as both the number of characters and number of words in the title. Table 1 presents the mean number of characters and mean number of words by decade. Figure 1 displays the mean number of title characters by year. The zero-order correlation between title characters and year of publication was r = .481. The correlation between number of words in title and year of publication was r = .374.
Figure 1. Mean JAP Title Length (in Characters) by Year
Mean Word Length
Table 1 presents the mean world length of titles by decade. The relationship between mean word length and year of publication was r = .244.
Table 1 presents the percentage of articles that include a colon or question mark by decade. Exclamation marks were not included in this table, because only four articles used an exclamation mark in the title. The point-biserial correlation between the use of a colon and year of publication was r = .489. The correlation between the use of a question mark and year of publication was r = .168.
Table 1 presents the percentage of article titles that use nonacademic or informal language by decade. The point-biserial correlation between the use of non-academic language in titles and year of publication was r = .179.
As predicted, article titles in the Journal of Applied Psychology have changed considerably over the last 100 years.
The length of the average article title, measured by either number of characters or words, has increased dramatically and consistently over time. This mirrors findings found in other fields as well (Lewison & Hartley, 2005). The number of characters in JAP titles from the 2010s are fully 80% longer than those published in the 1920s. From the data, it is unclear whether this is attributable to a shift in research goals, practical changes in the field of applied psychology, a trend toward a more sesquipedalian writing style, or something else entirely. Elaine Pulakos, former SIOP president and repeat JAP contributor, chalks this up to the nature of the research itself: “Research has gotten more complex. Describing it in enough detail to convey what it’s about simply takes more words.” Talya Bauer, JAP associate editor, suggested the increase in title length may have something to do with making research easier to find via database searches: “The increase in title length makes sense to me[...] technology has changed how articles are discovered—online, rather than solely by reading them in the hard copies of journals or in reference sections.” One reviewer of this article suggested that titles increasingly include not only the subject of the research but also the methodology used in the study, which necessarily would increase the length of the title. John Campbell, former JAP editor, suggested that the increase in title length may be related to other trends in the field, including growing article length, more frequent references to “theory” (Cucina & Moriarty, 2015), and the increased use of null hypothesis significance testing (Hubbard, 2016). Campbell suggested, “I think one cause of all this is the infusion of "new,’ ‘novel,’ and ‘interesting’ theory for theory's sake into the requirements for being accepted for publication.”
The prevalence of punctuation use in article titles has also changed strikingly. Once again, this trend in our field coincides with similar trends in other disciplines (e.g., Diers, 1994; Lewison & Hartley, 2005). Prior to the last few decades, the use of colons and question marks in article titles was very rare. In the 1920s, just 3.96% of titles contained a colon and only 1.04% contained a question mark. In contrast, since 2010 a staggering 69.8% of article titles have included a colon, and 13.7% have included a question mark. In order to understand this phenomenon, we spoke to a number of current and former JAP editors to provide insight into the increasing use of the colon and question mark in article titles. The general response was a shrug—as the research has become more complex, so have the article titles. Christopher Berry, current JAP associate editor, quipped: “If you’re going to make your article titles so long, you have to throw some punctuation in there somewhere.” Although the colon and question mark have become pervasive in article titles, JAP authors have not yet quite embraced the exclamation mark; only four articles in the history of the journal have included an exclamation mark in their title. The trailblazing article that first introduced the use of exclamation marks in JAP titles was published in 2006 by Rogelberg, Leach, Warr, and Burnfield: “‘Not another meeting!’ Are meeting time demands related to employee well-being?”
Finally, article titles are increasingly informal in their language and tone. The use of humor, idioms, rhetorical questions, the first and second person perspective, and other nonacademic elements has become pervasive, representing 39% of article titles since 2010. Use of informal language tends to correspond with the use of a colon, often falling into the format of “Idiom: Detailed Description of Research,” for example, “When big brother is watching: Goal orientation shapes reactions to electronic monitoring during online training” (Watson et al., 2013). Such use of informal language often serves to catch the attention of busy readers. Elaine Pulakos notes the importance of the article title in her decision to invest her time: “I think I read the title quickly, make a call on whether it’s something I need or want to read and then move on.” The desire for clever or “eye catching” titles while simultaneously presenting accurate information is a likely explanation for the increasing title lengths. Bauer accurately succinctly this plight: “If you are trying to generate a clever title, it is important to make sure it is both clever AND truly representative of what was studied.” Although insisting that titles do not play a major role in his feedback as editor, Chen did note his preference for straightforward titles, adding that “while interesting, novel, or catchy titles are ok, I do not like catchy titles that mislead or overreach relative to what the article can speak to.”
In many ways, the current study has offered more questions than answers. Additional research might help to unravel why we have seen such striking increases in title length, punctuation, and informality in article titles. The commentators in this article have suggested a number of potential explanations that merit investigation. Furthermore, more could be done to differentiate trends affecting JAP in particular versus those relevant to our field as a whole. Expanding the sample of article titles to include those from other leading I-O journals would be useful in this regard. Finally, additional research could help us to understand how the features of article titles explored in this study might impact how research is consumed. Research on the relationship between title features and citation count conducted in other fields (e.g., Rostami et al., 2014; Subotic & Mukherjee, 2014) provides a useful model for future studies in this direction.
Much like our field as a whole, the titles of articles in the Journal of Applied Psychology have evolved substantially over the last 100 years. We look forward to revisiting this topic a century from now to see how things progress.
Cucina, J. M., & Moriarty, K. O. (2015). A historical look at theory in industrial-organizational psychology journals. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 53, 57-70.
Diers, D. (1994). Colonizing: A measurement of the development of a profession. Nursing Research, 43(5), 259-316.
Hubbard, R. (2016). Corrupt research: The case for reconceptualizing empirical management and social science. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Lewison, G., & Hartley, J. (2005). What’s in a title? Number of words and the presence of colons. Scientometrics, 63(2), 341-356.
Rogelberg, S. G., Leach, D. J., Warr, P. B., & Burnfield, J. L. (2006). “Not another meeting!” Are meeting time demands related to employee well-being? Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(1), 83-96.
Rostami, F., Mohammadpoorasl, A., & Hajizadeh, M. (2014). The effect of characteristics of title on citation rates of articles. Scientometrics, 98(3), 2007-2010.
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Watson, A. M., Foster Thompson, L., Rudolph, J. V., Whelan, T. J., Behrend, T. S., & Gissel, A. L. (2013). When big brother is watching: Goal orientation shapes reactions to electronic monitoring during online training. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(4), 642-657.