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The wits of the Algonquin circle once held a competition to see which one of them could come up with the most sensational headline. If a prize was given, I assume it was something fermented. Dorothy Parker won -- because of course she did -- with “Pope Elopes.”

Well, that one would certainly sell some papers -- or, as we say now, go viral. Until recently, the art of the headline was largely defined by the haiku-like challenge to balance impact and brevity within the constraints of a newspaper format. The greater a headline’s prominence, the larger the type, but the fewer the syllables it could contain. Given those terms, Parker’s masterpiece seems difficult to surpass. (That said, the legendary New York tabloid headline “Headless Body in Topless Bar” merits a special commendation for accompanying a real-life story.) Digital publications don’t have to adjust the length of a title, or even an article, to Procrustean specifications, but they have to take into account that readers’ attention is under continual bombardment. A headline must tickle the curiosity or otherwise imply that the article will at least be worth the opportunity cost built into reading it.

The contemporary phenomenon of “clickbait” makes that promise and then breaks it almost immediately. The Oxford dictionary defines the neologism as referring to online material “whose main purpose is the attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular webpage.” It subsumes a variety of what might be called, to be generous about it, fluff, including diet tips, sex advice, amazing new discoveries that you will not believe, lists of movies or TV shows (annotated to celebrate or mock them), photographs of celebrities (from high school yearbooks, the red carpet or mug shots) and video footage of animals engaged in adorable behavior. In taking the bait, visitors drive up site traffic and boost exposure for its advertisers. Clickbait content is to boredom what seawater is to thirst. If consuming it has any benefits, it's hard to imagine what they would be.

Two months ago, Gwilym Lockwood published a paper called “Academic Clickbait: Articles With Positively Framed Titles, Interesting Phrasing and No Wordplay Get More Attention Online” in The Winnower, an open-access online scholarly publishing platform. The author, a Ph.D. student in the neurobiology of language department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, describes his primary area of research as “a fairly niche topic: iconicity (or how much a word sounds like what it means) in Japanese ideophones (or words that are like onomatopoeia but much more so).” He notes that one of the papers based on that research “managed to get an Altmetric score of four,” while another proved “much more successful, with an Altmetric score of 49.” As of this writing, Lockwood’s paper in in The Winnower displays a score of 284, which definitely counts for a break out of the niche.

Calling something “academic clickbait” hardly seems like a recommendation -- least of all given that, as Lockwood writes, “clickbait content tends to be put together in a more cursory way” than, say, a newspaper article; “far more effort goes into attracting the click in the first place than creating content of value.” Far from enriching the vocabulary of scholarly insult, however, Lockwood intends to show how small but significant tweaks to a paper’s title can make it more likely to win the attention of one’s fellow specialists and possibly among wider circles as well.

He collected the titles of 2,136 articles appearing in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology in 2013 and 2014 and, with the aid of two assistants, determined how they scored on six factors studied by previous researchers interested in the sharing of newspaper articles as well as citation statistics for scientific papers. He also counted the number of words in each title and collected the article’s Altmetric score (which factors in discussion in mass media and on academic blogs, as well as citations in papers). Some of the findings included:

  • A short title did not necessarily give an article greater visibility, despite earlier research showing that articles with shorter titles are cited more often than those with longer titles.
  • Titles clearly stating that the research showed or proved something attracted more attention than titles that did not.
  • Likewise with what Lockwood calls “arousing phrasing,” which is marked by “more general and less technical terminology” and “interesting or eye-catching turns of phrase.”
  • Framing the title as a question can increase the frequency with which an article is downloaded (other studies have suggested as much), but it did not correspond to a stronger Altmetric score.
  • Titles were rated as having or lacking “social currency,” depending on whether “a nonacademic [would] sound impressive and interesting if they were talking about this topic to their nonacademic friends in the pub.” Not surprisingly, this was the factor for which Lockwood and his assistants’ scores showed the widest variation in judgment.
  • General conclusions: “The positive framing of an article's findings in the title and phrasing the title in an arousing way increases how much online attention an article gets, independently of nonclickbait measures like how interesting the topic is or the length of the title. However, including a question in the title makes no difference, and having wordplay in the title actively harms an article's Altmetric score. This suggests that academic media is treated similarly to nonacademic media by the public in terms of what initially attracts people's attention.”

For all the figures, tables and citations, the project seems like a bit of a lark -- or so one might take the disclosure that the two research assistants “were compensated by [Lockwood] for their time and effort with dinner and beer.” For that matter, the title “Academic Clickbait” embodies what it names: it’s designed to tempt the reader into having a look.

At the same time, however, the title also does the article itself something of a disservice. Lockwood's advice is in general sound; it explains some ways to convey a sense of the significance of research to a reasonably wide range of possible readers who might be interested in it. By contrast, clickbait enriches somebody, but it's definitely not the public.

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