Dear Sarah Huggett, dear Editor,

With high interest we read your recent article "Heading for success: or how not tot title your paper", in Issue 24 (September 2011) of Research Trends. For articles focusing on trends it is important to cover the most recent literature. Therefore we would like to draw your attention to the following.

In our recent contribution to the Journal of Informetrics 1, we publish a broad analysis of the occurrence and impact of all non-alphanumeric characters in 650,000 titles of peer-reviewed publications published between 1999 and 2008. In this analysis, we did not limit our investigation to a single field, but sampled publications from all fields, including the social sciences and humanities, in as far they are available in the Web of Science database.

Based on this extensive analysis, we draw the following main conclusions regarding the effect on impact:

1. Inclusion of a non-alphanumeric character has a positive effect on impact.

2. However, this effect is not visible if the most frequent non-alphanumeric characters (the hyphen, colon, comma, left and right parenthesis) are disregarded from the calculation.

3. In specific major fields, the effect can:

  • be positive, like in the overall case;
  • be negative, i.e. including a non-alphanumeric character has an adverse effect;
  • be absent, i.e. there appears to be no significant effect.

Additionally, we found that the relative occurrence of non-alphanumeric characters in titles has not been increasing between 1999 and 2008. We found this result was somewhat of a surprise, because some of the most cited analyses on specific non-alphanumeric characters in titles (see for instance Ref. 2) could give the impression that (at least the colon and question mark) “are on the rise” in science. Although this may be true for the limited scope of both analyses, we conclude that this does not hold for scientific publications in general.

In the discussion of our results, we hypothesize that these results can be explained by the need for an author to confirm to a general format of a title. If an author strays too far from this format, then he or she may run an increased risk that the title is disregarded by their peers, thus reducing the chance to get cited. In fact, such a conclusion is clearly in line with both Srivastava's and Blencowe's remarks, from which we gather that they will refrain from using a title that is “special” in any way, which would disturb the message they would want to convey.

Although our conclusions do not disagree with the results of Jamali and Nikzad (2011) nor with your analysis on the Cell publications, we think that our contribution adds important nuance to both results. For an author it is advisable to take a good look at the general format of titles in the field they want to publishing in. So, if that field features a lot of question marks or exclamations marks, then do include such characters in a title. Also, if that field is not used to see colons in titles of normal articles, then it may not advisable to include such a colon (let alone three).

Leiden, October 2011

Reindert (Renald) K. Buter
Anthony (Ton) F.J. Van Raan


  • Buter, R.K., & Van Raan, A.F.J. (2011) Non-alphanumeric characters in titles of scientific publications: an analysis of their occurrence and correlation with citation impact. Journal of Informetrics, Vol. 5, pp. 608-617.
  • Dillon, J.T. (1982) Impact of the colon: Preliminary reactions. American Psychologist, Vol. 37, pp. 716.
  • Jamali, H.R. & Nikzad M. (2011) Article title type and its relation with the number of downloads and citations. Scientometrics, Vol. 88, pp. 653-661 .
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