Political scientists and biologists have different article titling conventions

I subscribe to various biology and political science journals. When scanning tables of contents, I always have an easier time deciding what biology papers to read than what political science papers to read. At first, I assumed this was because I knew more biology than political science. However, this never really changed as I learned more political science.

Today, I noticed a big difference in the way biologists and political scientists title papers. Biologists generally use their main result as a paper’s title and political scientists generally write titles that are more broad in scope.

For example, here are the most recent tables of contents from the American Political Science Review (a top political science journal) and Proceedings of the Royal Society B (a top biology journal). 

Unemployment and the Democratic Electoral Advantage Groups of related belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) travel together during their seasonal migrations in and around Hudson Bay
How Words and Money Cultivate a Personal Vote: The Effect of Legislator Credit Claiming on Constituent Credit Allocation Nectar bacteria, but not yeast, weaken a plant–pollinator mutualism
Sources of Bias in Retrospective Decision Making: Experimental Evidence on Voters’ Limitations in Controlling Incumbents The evolution of cooperation by social exclusion
Tying Your Enemy’s Hands in Close Races: The Politics of Federal Transfers in Brazil Careful cachers and prying pilferers: Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) limit auditory information available to competitors
The Adverse Effects of Sunshine: A Field Experiment on Legislative Transparency in an Authoritarian Assembly Telomere length reflects phenotypic quality and costs of reproduction in a long-lived seabird
Borrowed Power: Debt Finance and the Resort to Arms The role of individuality in collective group movement
“Writing a Name in the Sky”: Rancière, Cavell, and the Possibility of Egalitarian Inscription Opsin switch reveals function of the ultraviolet cone in fish foraging
Democracy’s Dignity Visual habitat geometry predicts relative morph abundance in the colour-polymorphic ornate rainbowfish
The Supreme Court’s Many Median Justices Females roam while males patrol: divergence in breeding season movements of pack-ice polar bears (Ursus maritimus)
On the Demos and Its Kin: Nationalism, Democracy, and the Boundary Problem Direct evidence for encoding of motion streaks in human visual cortex
Does Combat Experience Foster Organizational Skill? Evidence from Ethnic Cleansing during the Partition of South Asia Extraversion predicts longer survival in gorillas: an 18-year longitudinal study
Legislative Bargaining and the Dynamics of Public Investment An assessment of wheat yield sensitivity and breeding gains in hot environments

I have helpfully underlined articles titles that are also the authors’ key findings. These tend to be papers titled with a complete declarative sentence. In this sample, eight out of twelve (67%) of Proc B articles and zero out of twelve (0%) APSR articles follow this convention.

For someone interested in norms and institutions, this is an interesting puzzle.  My first instinct is to call this a somewhat arbitrary self-reenforcing norm.  In ecology, these titles might better meet the expectations of readers, reviewers and journal editors.  From the “journal article checklist” in Karban and Huntzinger’s How to Do Ecology book:

Is there a similar expectation in political science-style titles?

Or maybe there is something about political science and biology as disciplines that make them more prone to these conventions?  Perhaps biology articles are more focused on specific questions than political science which tend to be more broad?  Certainly political science articles are longer on average. Or are political scientists more cautious about sounding like they are trying to have the final word on a subject than biologists?

There seems to be advantages to each.  I likely read more political science paper abstracts than I would if they were titled more like biology papers. So in the end, I am more broadly exposed to political science than biology. However, when pressed for time I am probably more likely to read a paper selected from a biology journal since, because I can be more discriminating, my expected returns are higher.

Do political scientists rely more heavily on authors’ reputations when deciding what to read?  For example, since I know Branislav Slantchev, (who wrote one of the above APSR articles) is a game theorist working in international relations, I am pretty likely to read his paper.

Any thoughts?

PS – I originally titled this post something like “Article titling conventions in biology and political science.”


One thought on “Political scientists and biologists have different article titling conventions

  1. Fwiw, I think this might be a general divide between social science and natural science. Sociology and economics articles tend to be titled pretty broadly as well. Not sure why, but I do think it’s a general pattern.

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