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

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….

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

  1. Brian Phillips March 15, 2013 at 8:17 am #

    Many puns are repeated, I think. Here is a clever one:

    “How Not to Be Lakatos Intolerant: Appraising Progress in IR Research”
    Elman & Elman 2002 ISQ

  2. Andrew Gelman March 15, 2013 at 8:19 am #

    I wanted to call my PhD thesis, “Female Mass Murderers: Babes Behind Bars,” and I even prepared an alternative cover page with that title. But a friend persuaded me not to do it, so I went with “Topics in Image Reconstruction for Emission Tomography.”

    Also, in retrospect I think “Red State Blue State” was too cute a title for our book, and I think we would’ve been better going with something more direct such as “How did rich states become liberal and poor states conservative? A statistical analysis.” The trouble with the cute title is I think it may have made some people underestimate the research content of the book.

  3. Stentor March 15, 2013 at 10:01 am #

    I would heartily endorse some sort of title duplication restriction just to stop people in the fire ecology and wildfire management fields from constantly calling their articles “The Burning Question.”

  4. WB March 15, 2013 at 10:24 am #

    I guess good titles are quoted, great titles are stolen.

  5. Scott Monje March 15, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    I know you’re not asking about the legal aspects, but the rule is that you cannot copyright a title. As the copyright office puts it:

    “Copyright law does not protect names, titles, or short phrases or expressions. Even if a name, title, or short phrase is novel or distinctive or lends itself to a play on words, it cannot be protected by copyright.”

    So if you want to call your article “The Great Gatsby” or “Fifty Shades of Gray,” feel free.

    • Joshua Tucker March 15, 2013 at 11:42 am #

      “Fifty Shades of Gatsby” has potential…

  6. Alan T March 15, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

    A paper on the role of trust in facilitating poultry exports is titled “Poultry in Motion: A Study of International Trade Finance Practices”.

  7. JorgXMckie March 15, 2013 at 12:20 pm #

    It wasn’t a pun, but one of the great articles on elections was published in the late ’80s I think under the title [from memory, but close, for sure] “Are Democrats Just Stupid, or Are They Ugly, Too?” It certainly got a lot of attention, which I assume was the point.

    • John Sides March 15, 2013 at 1:39 pm #

      That would be “Toward a Stupidity-Ugliness Theory of Democratic Electoral Debacles,” by our own Lee Sigelman!

  8. Jonas Linde March 15, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

    ….and here is the author of the article! First, thanks for a great blog which I read quite regularly. However, I never thought that my research – or my fondness of these kinds of puns – would be the topic of this blog. I guess you wonder if I knew about your piece and that I just stole it right away? The honest answer is of course NO. I have never seen your article, and I can even remember googling my title and different versions of it without getting any hits. I guess I didn’t work hard enough on the googling.

    My inspiration for using that title comes mainly from a line in the song “Any Other Way” by my all time favorite band The Posies:
    “Don’t feed the hand that bites you
    Just learn to starve
    Don’t fight for change in your time
    Just swallow your depression
    And say you’re happy that it’s rotten out today”

    Hm, hope that the guys in the band don’t see this….

    So, I don’t know if I should say “sorry” or anything like that. But I don’t think so.

    Thanks for a great blog, keep up the good work!

    • Joshua Tucker March 16, 2013 at 7:16 am #


      Nice to “meet” you! Good to know there is someone else out there interested in puns and East European politics, and that that person reads The Monkey Cage!

      Thanks for the kind words about the blog – they are much appreciated. As I tried to make very clear in the post, I intended absolutely no insinuation of any malicious intent on your part. It’s a great (horrible?) pun, and not surprising we both wanted to use it. So I agree – no need to apologize at all. Actually, I’m impressed you Googled first to see if anyone had used it. I wonder how many people do that with “punny” titles, and I certainly didn’t do that before I used the title. I also had no idea about the song — when was it released?? — so thanks for the reference!

      Thanks as well for being a good sport about the post, and hopefully we can meet in person one of these days.


      • Jonas Linde March 18, 2013 at 3:49 am #

        Joshua: Nice to “meet” you to, and thanks for replying to my reply. The song is from the album “Dear 23” which came out in 1990. Give it a listen, it’s great!

  9. Steve Smith March 15, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

    I had a better idea for “Call to Order” (1989)–“Why Don’t We Do It on the Floor?” Tom Mann must accept responsibility of nixing that idea. Right, Tom?

    • Joshua Tucker March 16, 2013 at 7:18 am #

      Steve – I’ve also lost some good titles between first drafts and what is actually published. Although John Geer deserves a huge shout out here: one reviewer requested we drop the “Run, Boris, Run!” after the colon from our JOP article – John responded by telling us not only to ignore the reviewer but also to move it before the colon!

  10. Leslie March 15, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    Maybe people would be amused by my “What Every Schoolboy Knows about How to Find the Earliest Use of the Phrase ‘Every Schoolboy Knows’”.

    It’s available here:

  11. Mike Stern March 15, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    I am still extremely pleased with myself for “What’s Happening? Rerunning the Wirt-Rappaport Debate on the Recess Appointments Clause.” Possibly no one gets the joke besides me, but I am not going to let that stop me.

  12. Ronan Fitzgerald March 15, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

    “Return of the Mack: The Presidency of Connie Mack” is the name of my hypothetical, highly contingent biography

  13. Nazgul35 March 15, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

    So the follow up would be: “What’s happening now? Re-rerunning the Wirt-Rappaport Debate on the Recess Appointments Clause?”

  14. Tracy Lightcap March 15, 2013 at 3:03 pm #

    Sometimes you don’t have much choice. I wrote a book on torture published in 2011. My original title – which I still think was pretty good and a lot more descriptive – was “From the Lubyanka to Abu Ghraib: The Adoption of Torture in the United States and the Soviet Union.” But my publisher said they thought that was too chatty. Their alternative was “The Politics of Torture”. I pointed out that Mark Danner had already published a widely circulated book with just that title in 2005. They told me they knew that, but that they liked their title better then mine. I offered to come up with something else, but they said their board had spoken and it was not for mere mortals to challenge them.

    “Ok-k-k-k,” I said; I wanted the book published. But I still like my title better! So there!

  15. Matt Jarvis March 15, 2013 at 4:21 pm #

    I often prefer to put the pun after the seemingly-requisite colon, so the title informs first, then entertains. However, in all honestly, I’m usually the only one entertained by the title, as I’m also one of the few people who has actually read the piece!

  16. W. Mayes March 15, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

    A friend of mine loves coming up with titles like this.

    His latest was on topic of shovel ready projects:

    “Giggle-mesh: Is “Shovel Ready Project” a Laughable Framing?”

  17. Bill B. March 15, 2013 at 6:02 pm #

    In my field, best recent title is “You Can’t Always Get What You Need:
    Organizational Determinants of Diversity Programs” by Frank Dobbin and coauthors. It’s a play on a song title and also precisely communicates the bottom line of the article. Here’s the abstract:

    While some U.S. corporations have adopted a host of diversity management programs, many have done little or nothing. We explore the forces promoting six diversity programs in a national sample of 816 firms over 23 years. Institutional theory suggests that external pressure for innovation reinforces internal advocacy. We argue that external pressure and internal advocacy serve as alternatives, such that when external pressure is already high, increases in internal advocacy will not alter the likelihood of program adoption. Moreover, institutional theory points to functional need as a driver of innovation. We argue that in the case of innovations designed to achieve new societal goals, functional need, as defined in this case by the absence of workforce diversity or the presence of regulatory oversight, is less important than corporate culture. Our findings help explain the spotty coverage of diversity programs. Firms that lack workforce diversity are no more likely than others to adopt programs, but firms with large contingents of women managers are more likely to do so. Pro-diversity industry and corporate cultures promote diversity programs. The findings carry implications for public policy.

    My best title was “She Works Hard for the Money: Household Responsibilities and the Allocation of Work Effort” which earned me a “not bad for a sociologist” kudo from Gary Becker.

  18. Gunner March 15, 2013 at 9:40 pm #

    Can I just say that if you ever do another story about high finance in the UK, you should call it “Bankers ARE Wankers”…

  19. Angel Martin March 15, 2013 at 11:45 pm #

    And Ethan Scheiner’s “When do you follow the (national) leader? Party switching
    by subnational legislators in Japan.”,%20ES.pdf

  20. Ben Stanley March 18, 2013 at 6:16 am #

    Have any IR scholars used Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” yet? If not, it justifies a paper in itself. As do most Zevon song titles, come to think of it.

  21. Lauren March 18, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

    Clean and simple and useful. Best recent discovery: “What are we weighting for?”

  22. Brian March 20, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

    Coming late to the party, but here’s one I just found out about that Josh should like:

    “No Country for Made Men: The Decline of the
    Mafia in Post-Soviet Georgia”
    Gavin Slade, Law and Society Review 2012

  23. Rick March 24, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    Favorite Titles:

    “Over His Dead Body: The Rise of Widows in the U.S. Congress” by Diane Blair. From the late 70s about how most women in Congress at that point were primarily widows.

    “Should I Go or Should I Stay Now?” which I’ve actually seen used twice, but originally it was an article on voluntary legislative exits in Canada which has the highest voluntary turnover rate in the developed world.

    “Donut Shops and Speed Traps” by Brehm and Gates on principal-agent problems with street level bureaucrats.

    “Get By with a Little Help From My Friends” Frohlich & Oppenheimer

    I’m curious if some of the editors can regale us with some terrible puns they’ve axed and we’ve never seen.