Do academics own the titles of their articles?

What happens if someone co-opts someone else’s title in academia without giving due credit?

joshua tucker papers
For some academics, creating witty titles is a source of professional pride - but what if they're mimicked? [Al Jazeera]

As an academic, publishing scholarly work is a crucial part of my career. This means I repeatedly have to come up with titles for these pieces. I happen to value a creative title for academic work, especially if it involves a pun or play on words. My dissertation was entitled “It’s the Economy, Comrade!“, and I have an article called “Run, Boris, Run!” [PDF], and another one 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” [PDF] *. 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 a faculty member at Princeton University, 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 I was content that I had reached such a height of academic punnery.

Imagine my surprise, then, when a few days ago 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 about it (I am currently defining “vaguely humorous” as something that is not nearly as funny as Sarah Binder’s Peepal Conclave, which, if you haven’t yet seen, you should). 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 grabs 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. Titles in these categories are therefore somehow associated with the author in question, so is it somehow wrong to appropriate that title without acknowledging it? 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 piece because this is not at all a criticism of him. The pun (I think? hope?) is clever, and there is 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 same 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 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.

Joshua A Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University, a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a co-author of the award-winning politics and policy blog The Monkey Cage.  

Follow him on Twitter: @j_a_tucker