It has been ten years since the publication of Sue Ziebland and Catherine Pope’s groundbreaking study, "The Utilization of Colons in Titles of British Medical Sociology Conference Papers, from 1970 to 1993". At the time, Ziebland was working in the Department of Public Health Medicine at London’s Camden and Islington Health Authority, but has since joined the University of Oxford. Pope, who conducted her research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, now works at the University of Bristol, after having traveled a different academic path.
Together, Ziebland and Pope set out to investigate the application of colons in titles of several papers in the field of British research. Their work was featured in the Annals of Improbable Research, and it helped bring to light a predicament that had been troubling social scientists: how to create compelling titles for conference papers while also relaying the actual subject of the research. They described it as follows: "Unless a presenter is of an exceptionally reserved persona, there is most likely a desire to construct an enticing and attention-grabbing title. Eventually, however, the crux of the research will need to be addressed, and it is in one’s best interest to incorporate some reference to the actual substance of the research."
Ziebland and Pope analyzed data from a specific yearly conference to study the trends in the use of colons in paper titles. They reviewed every research paper that was listed in the printed programs from the conference’s inaugural year of 1969 to the 1993 gathering.
To determine their findings, they established calculations based on the proportion of the total number of papers each year that included one or more colons in their titles. Every paper was counted only once, even a paper from 1979 that had five colons in its title.
Their conclusions were that during the 1970s and 1980s, paper titles with colon usage showed a steady increase. From the mid-1980s, the percentage of paper titles that relied on colons remained consistent between 40% and 48%. In 1985, an exceptional and unexplained 57% of titles comprised colons use.
The colon has stimulated academic discussions for centuries. Scholar JT Dillon from the University of California explored the academic colon in depth a decade before the research by Ziebland and Pope. These studies were highly insightful and captivating at that time, but now they are considered as artifacts of history.
Marc Abrahams, organizer of the Ig Nobel Prize and editor of the bi-monthly periodical Annals of Improbable Research, provides this commentary.