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Do Academics own the Titles of Their Articles? And What if it Involves a Really Good Pun?

- March 15, 2013

Some of you who know me or my work will be aware that I value a creative title for an article, especially if it involves a pun or play on words. My dissertation was entitled It’s the Economy, Comrade!, Adam Meirowitz and I have an article called “Run, Boris, Run!”, and Ted Brader and I recently published a piece called “Follow the Leader”. (To this date, I am disappointed that I couldn’t come up with anything better for my book than Regional Economic Voting).

However, I think the high point of my title-writing career came when Amber Seligson and I co-authored an article on why people vote for ex-authoritarian leaders in Russia and Bolivia (which still may be the only straight Russia-Bolivia comparative piece in a political science article) and we called it “Feeding the Hand that Bit You”^*^. Truth be told, the genesis for the article came from the first time I met Amber to talk about our research, and I said “you know, if we ever co-author an article about voting for ex-authoritarian leaders, we should call it `Feeding the Hand that Bit You’.” And so we did. I loved this title, and even remember getting into a brief argument about it with Tom Romer, who was annoyed with it because hands couldn’t bite. Nevertheless, I persevered, and we eventually published the piece, title in tact. I was a bit sad, as I knew I was never going to top this one^**^, but all in all content that I had reached such a height of academic punnery.

Imagine my surprise, then, when yesterday I discovered a 2012 European Journal of Political Research article entitled “Why feed the hand that bites you? Perceptions of procedural fairness and system support in post-communist democracies”. There it was – the pinnacle of my punning career – attached to someone else’s article! What could I do? Sue? Tell the EJPR to change the title retroactively? Try to get the author appointed to the German government? (For those not getting this last reference, try Googling “German Minister Resigns Plagiarism” – it currently returns 398,000 hits).

Instead, I decided to do what I usually do in these circumstances, which was to try to write something vaguely humorous for The Monkey Cage. (“Vaguely humorous” is currently defined as not nearly as funny as Sarah Binder’s Peepal Conclave.) But it does raise an interesting issue. Do we have any ownership over our titles? I’m not talking about legal issues here, but more just in the sense of whether titles are up for grab as soon as they are used. Clearly, referencing one title to refute the argument of another similarly titled piece is fine – hence Larry Bartels’ superbly titled “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?” – but at the same time I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have called my book Harry Potter and the East European Elections, as one of my cousins suggested. Now most titles don’t really reflect any value added: saying that no one should ever again use “An Analysis of Economic Voting in the X Election” as a title would also be ridiculous. But some titles are very well known, some are creative, and some are memorably annoying. But all of these are somehow associated with the author in question, so is it somehow wrong to appropriate that title without acknowledging it? Curious to hear what people think of this. Is this also an issue among journalists? Fiction writers?

Two caveats before I close. First, I in no way think that the author of the “Why feed the hand…” article in any way knew about my article and deliberately copied the title; indeed I have explicitly not included the author’s name in this post because this is not at all a criticism of him. The pun (I think? hope?) is clever, and no reason two people couldn’t have come up with it independently. Second, I am completely aware of the possibility that someone is going to identify in the comments section below somebody who used the pun in a political science article before I did, thus putting me in the exact same position as the author of the EJPR piece. To reiterate, the point is not blame this author at all (or me if it turns out I did the same thing!), but merely to raise the raise the question – albeit in a lighthearted way – about academics and the proper concern they should have for their titles. (And yes, that last pun was intended!)


^*^ For non-native English speakers reading this post, “Don’t Bite the Hand that Feeds You” is a well known English expression; you can find a discussion of the phrase here.

^**^ I thought I came close last year with a play on the classic economic voting article “Peasants or Bankers” until a kind British colleague of mine informed me that I hadn’t quite understood the implication in England of the word I had chosen that rhymed with “Banker” and suggested I change the title….