Do you know the name of the first bank in the United States? The First Bank of The United States of course. How about the second bank? The Second Bank of the United States. And after that it seems like every time a bank opens in a new place for the first time that bank calls itself First Bank of The New Place. (Try your favorite place. Here’s mine.)
Why? Because only the first can be The First. If people trust banks more the longer they have been around, then in equilibrium the first bank will call itself the First Bank and everyone will know who was first.
Titles of papers have something in common with names of banks. A paper titled Law and Finance is guaranteed to be the seminal paper in the field because if it were not then that title would have already been taken. You can go ahead and cite it without actually reading it. By contrast, you can safely ignore a paper with a title like Valuation and Dynamic Replication of Contingent Claims in a General Market Enviornmnet Based on the Beliefs-Preferences Guage Symmetry even if you don’t know what any of those words mean. The title is essentially telling you “Don’t read me. Instead go and read a paper whose title is simply Valuation of Contingent Claims. If you have any questions after reading that, you might look into dynamic replication and then beliefs, preferences, and if after all that you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, check here for the lowdown on guage symmetry.”
Two pieces of advice follow from these observations. First, find the simplest title not yet taken for your papers. One word titles are the best. Second, before you get started on a paper, think about the title. If you can’t come up with a short title for it then its probably not worth writing.
The absolute worst thing you can do with your title is to insert a colon into it. (quiet down beavis!) As in, Torture: A Model of Dynamic Commitment Problems. Or Kludged: Asymptotically Inefficient Evolution. In the first case you have just ruined a seminal-signaling one-word title by adding spurious specificity. In the second, you just took an intriguing one-world title and turned it into a yawner.
The second worst kind of title is the question mark title. ”Is the Folk Theorem Robust?” This says to the reader: ”You picked this up because you want to know if the folk theorem is robust. Well, if I knew the answer to that I would have told you right away in the title. But look, all I could do is repeat the question, so you can safely assume that you won’t find the answer in this paper.”