Citations, chocolate and colons: what gets research read?

I once spotted an interesting paper (by Räikkönen et al 2004) about chocolate consumption in pregnancy. It was called “Sweet babies: chocolate consumption during pregnancy and infant temperament at six months” and published in the journal “Early Human Development.”

A tantalising title. But even more interesting than the topic itself was the fact that the paper had been published in a journal, mentioned in news stories in several UK national newspapers and on the BBC website, and yet relatively ignored by the wider academic community. The initial literature search found no commentaries, editorials or other papers that had mentioned or discussed Räikkönen et al (2004), and continued searching found only a tiny handful of papers that had cited it, which is somewhat unusual. (In a kind of time and space folds in on itself and creates a potential paradox threatening the fabric of the universe and warranting the appearance  of Doctor Who type situation, a colleague later discovered that I was one of the first people to cite it in the medical or midwifery literature (Wickham 2005), but this has no relevance on any level other than the cosmic).

This vacuum in the research continuum seemed a bit curious, not to mention unhelpful. Especially when one of the tried and tested tools of literature searching is the searching of papers to see what they have cited and then to also find out what has cited them. I pondered a lot of possible reasons for why Räikkönen et al (2004) were ignored. Was it to do with journal ratings? Was Early Human Development not high profile or well-regarded enough as a journal? Do impact factors really make a difference? Or it could be because of the topic? Perhaps chocolate is seen as a frivolous topic for research and therefore not worth commenting on? We are never going to know what happened in this case, or whether it is simply a coincidence, but some of the research findings found while pondering these questions are definitely worth sharing.

• Phillips et al (1991) found that an article that is cited in the lay press is more likely to be cited in other academic journals. This makes sense; it is extremely difficult to keep up with everything that is published, so I would imagine that many practitioners will be more likely to look up (and then perhaps later cite) a study that they hear about on the radio than one that is buried within a journal that they never get the time to read. It does mean that, to at least some extent, public relations and publicity can be more important than the quality of the paper.

• Question marks are becoming far more commonly used in the titles of articles (Ball 2009). Jamali & Nikzad (2011) found that articles which ask a question in their title are more likely to be downloaded but less likely to be cited. As Goldacre (2011:1) suggested in a blog post on this topic, ‘Maybe question-mark titles are more ambiguous and playful, so you have to download them to see if they’re relevant to your work, explaining the mismatch between downloads and citations?’

• Jamali & Nikzad (2011) found that articles with longer titles were downloaded less than articles with shorter titles, but Habibzadeh & Yadollahie (2010) showed longer titles to be associated with higher citation rates. It is thus hard to draw definitive conclusions from this, partly because it seems to vary a bit between scientific, social science, medical or mathematical journals.

• Jamali & Nikzad (2011) also found that the presence of a colon in the title may not be a good idea, as this also leads to fewer citations.

• Amusing titles may also be less popular; a study of articles published in psychology journals found that those with amusing titles received fewer citations (Sagi & Yechiam 2008).

Colleagues and I came to the completely opinion-based conclusion that it may have been the title of Räikkönen et al’s (2004) ‘Sweet babies’ article that was the reason for its low citation rate, with the existence of a colon adding insult to injury, but this is completely unscientific and there is no way of knowing if we are right. It’s not exactly directly relevant to practice either. It is highly unlikely that you are going to meet a pregnant woman who wants information about journal citation rates. So why is it worthy of discussion? Well, perhaps because it shows that those of us who read, use and cite research (which includes practitioners using research in everyday practice as well as those of us who deal with more of it on a more regular basis) are subject to being more or less likely to read and/or cite a study based on lots of things that have nothing to do with the quality of the research. No matter whether you’re a practitioner who has limited time or a student undertaking a written assignment, study titles may turn out to be pretty important in relation to what you’re likely to read in full.


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A version of this article was originally published as Wickham S (2012). Citations, chocolate and colons: what gets research read?. EM 3(4): 50-51.



Ball R (2009). Scholarly communication in transition: The use of question marks in the titles of scientific articles in medicine, life sciences and physics 1966–2005. Scientometrics 79(3): 667-79.

Goldacre B (2011). Will asking a question get your science paper cited more? Guardian, 14 October. http://tinyurl. com/3wpby87 [Accessed 29 February 2012].

Habibzadeh F, Yadollahie M (2010). Are shorter article titles more attractive for citations? Cross-sectional study of 22 scientific journals. Croatian Medical Journal 51(2): 165-70.

Jamali HR, Nikzad M (2011). Article title type and its relation with the number of downloads and citations. Scientometrics 88(2): 653-61.

Phillips DP, Kanter EJ, Bednarczyk B et al (1991). Importance of the lay press in the transmission of medical knowledge to the scientific community. The New England Journal of Medicine 325(16):1180-3.

Räikkönen K, Pesonen AK, Järvenpää AL et al (2004). Sweet babies: chocolate consumption during pregnancy and infant temperament at six months. Early Human Development 76(2):139-45.

Sagi I, Yechiam E (2008). Amusing titles in scientific journals and article citation. Journal of Information Science 34(5):680-7.

Wickham S (2005). Nutrition and the wisdom of craving. TPM 8(4):33.

Wickham S (2012). The bumpy playing field of breastfeeding research. EM 3(3):50-1.


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