Informatics: discussion generation vs title generation

At lunchtime, Clare Llewellyn and myself ran a workshop called ‘Killer Titles: The relationships between a research paper’s content, citations, abstract and title’. The abstract that was circulated for the workshop was written in what I like to think of as ‘official’ language:

By drawing on an individual paper’s abstract and references, our prototype title assistant – Entitlement – ranks possible nouns and noun phrases for a title, varying the weight given to text from the abstract, citation frequencies and dates. This allows the selection of title words which are classic or contemporary, domain specific or paper specific, and indicates the possible impact of these words. This workshop will use Entitlement to provoke discussion around how the title of a paper impacts the number of times it is cited and downloaded. We will also be presenting general guidelines for good practise when titling your own work, summarised from research in this domain.

The non-official language version would probably go something like this:

How do we use titles as authors? How do we use them as researchers? Is there such a thing as a perfect title? We set out to answer these questions, and we’ve come a certain distance on that journey. Our prototype title assistant — Entitlement — is designed to provoke discussion around the criteria we could be bearing in mind when selecting titles for academic papers. Inspired by the format of parodic academic generators such as the Postmodern Essay Generator  and analysis-based title ranking systems such as the LuLu Title Scorer, Entitlement is a conversation-piece as much as an investigation of meaningful title generation.

As a discussion generator, the prototype seemed to work. One issue which came up was  how to define the standards titles could be judged against, and the general impression I took away was that linking to standards of practice at specific, highly rated journals was one avenue that might merit exploration. Another was ways of ranking ‘pleasantness’ in titles, or of cross-referencing with outside allusions. Over a late lunch after the workshop (which I filmed. Edited version to follow somepoint), Clare and I kicked about some more direct theories on the purpose of academic paper titles vs. literary titles. The latter were, we felt (backed up by my PhD research), more about grabbing peoples’ attention: distinctiveness over description. They were part of the branding of the physical book, shouting in a marketplace to get the attention of both buyers and readers; what Jon Oberlander termed in the workshop as contemporary advertising; concept/brand driven, rather than the product-description-heavy promotions when the industry first started up. Academic paper titles, in comparison, served a much more functional role. As a point of reference for peer reviewers, editors and researchers, their primary goal was to correctly identify the content of the paper to follow. Interesting-ness and lyricism were not unimportant, but they were of secondary importance in the grander scheme of things.

For those of you interested in having a play with Entitlement, please take a couple of minutes to also follow the link on the page to our feedback survey- all input gratefully received. I’ve been running story drafts through it rather than abstracts, for comedy value. One of my old stories – originally titled ‘Reclamation’ as part of my MLitt thesis, then published by Cinnamon Press as ‘Null’, produced some softly attractive titles including ‘The whisky with network’. If you tidy it up slightly to ‘The Whisky-With Network’ then I think it could be the title of a rather charming little story about a young woman who socialises exclusively with whisky drinkers. The need to do some practical research for the story gives it an added appeal…

The rest of today? Picking up Bob Fisher’s MSS for a read-through, playing with the camera some more, doing a basic edit of the footage from lunch, running old stories through Entitlement for a giggle, setting up the last lot of meetings pre-Christmas break, reading through departmental emails and noting possible story ideas from them. All very civilised.

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