Are Some Paper Titles “Clickbait”?

By Neuroskeptic | June 30, 2016 2:40 pm

A new article over at The Winnower looks at the phenomenon of Academic clickbait: articles with positively-framed titles, interesting phrasing, and no wordplay get more attention online.

Author Gwilym Lockwood of Nijmegen considered all of the papers published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2013 and 2014. Several “clickbait” characteristics (as Lockwood calls them) of the paper titles were assessed by three raters, and the outcome measure was the Altmetric score, which summarizes the volume of social media (e.g. Twitter) interest in each paper. A higher Altmetric score means more ‘buzz’.

It turns out that the biggest correlate of a higher Altmetric score was “phrasing arousal”, which Lockwood defines (it’s somewhat subjective) as “using more general and less technical terminology, using interesting or eye-catching turns of phrase, and using the curiosity gap”.

clickbait_science“Positive framing”, i.e. a title consisting of a concrete statement of the results, as opposed to a description of the topic of the study or the question asked, was also associated with better Altmetrics.

However, “wordplay” i.e. pun titles was not associated with Altmetric success. If anything, amusing titles got less attention. Maybe this is a sign that scientists should stick to science and not comedy. The presence of question marks and the total number of words of the title likewise had little or no impact.

This is an interesting set of results, and in my view the null results are more interesting than the positive ones. I was surprised to see that title length had no effect because a short title is one of the main things I look for when I’m scanning paper titles deciding which ones to highlight on my Twitter feed. Ditto for pun titles (a guilty pleasure of mine). Actually, I cover psychology, so my own tweets will have been included in the Altmetric scores that formed the data for this article.

Finally, I can’t help but note that Lockwood’s article title is itself “clickbait” by his definition, containing a positive framing and phrasing arousal (not least the choice to use the word “clickbait”…)

  • John R Platt

    Geez, I *wish* more academic papers used clickbaity titles. 99.99% of them have titles so dense and boring it’s a wonder they ever get read at all!

    • Neuroskeptic

      Hehe, very true

  • OWilson

    Your own article headline ends with the eminently “clickable” question mark.

    Are we being manipulated by artful authors? :)

    • Neuroskeptic

      Ah but in my defense, Lockwood found that question marks are only associated with a very small difference in Altmetric scores 😉

      • OWilson

        I stand corrected!

  • ohwilleke

    Abstracts that say a conclusion about an important question is reached without stating what that conclusion is, when it could be stated in a few words, in order to get people to read the paper itself, are among my pet peeves.

    Even worse, I’ve seen a handful of abstracts that sum up the current paper and conclude with sentence or two pitch for their next “forthcoming” paper that will offer more great insights. “To be continued . . . ” does not belong in an abstract.

  • Pingback: O Que é Clickbait e Porque Ainda Funciona - SEO SEED RANK()



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


See More

@Neuro_Skeptic on Twitter


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar