I analyzed a random sample of 9,830 full-text research papers, uploaded to PubMed Central between the years 2016 and 2021, to answer the questions:
Can a research title be a question? And do questions make good titles?
I used the BioC API to download the data (see the References section below).
Popularity of question titles
It is not that popular for a research title to be a question. In fact, only 3.2% of titles in our sample contained a question mark (n=314 out of 9,830 titles).
The titles of review articles (systematic reviews and meta-analyses) are slightly more likely to be phrased as questions than those of original research articles (4.3% versus 3%)
Examples of question titles in PubMed
“Why do I need it? I am not at risk! Public perceptions towards the pandemic (H1N1) 2009 vaccine”Link to the article on PubMed
“Enterohepatic Helicobacter in Ulcerative Colitis: Potential Pathogenic Entities?”Link to the article on PubMed
“Individual Participant Data Meta-Analysis for a Binary Outcome: One-Stage or Two-Stage?”Link to the article on PubMed
“How to Design the Control Group in Randomized Controlled Trials of Acupuncture?”Link to the article on PubMed
“Which Genetics Variants in DNase-Seq Footprints Are More Likely to Alter Binding?”Link to the article on PubMed
“Does Tai Chi relieve fatigue? A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials”Link to the article on PubMed
Length of question titles
Question titles were slightly longer than other types of titles. The median question title was 17 words long (IQR=7 words) compared to 16 words (IQR=6 words) for non-question titles:
|Other types of titles|
|25th percentile||14 words||13 words|
|Median||17 words||16 words|
|75th percentile||21 words||19 words|
Do questions attract more citations?
According to our data, I found no evidence that question titles attract more citations. On the contrary, the median article with a question mark in its title had 2 citations per year, compared to a median of 2.2 citations per year for articles without a question mark in their titles.
Do high-quality journals publish question titles?
In our sample, question titles were published in journals with slightly lower impact factors than non-question titles (median impact factor of 2.5 versus 2.7).
So, journals with high impact factors are less likely to publish question titles.
- Comeau DC, Wei CH, Islamaj Doğan R, and Lu Z. PMC text mining subset in BioC: about 3 million full text articles and growing, Bioinformatics, btz070, 2019.