Analysis: Toward doing science

Yesterday, Rangarajan and coworkers published a paper in BMC Bioinformtatics entitled “Toward an interactive article: integrating journals and biological databases”. Not many hours later Neil Saunders made the following tweet commenting on it:

Can we ban use of "toward(s)" in article titles?

This reminded me of a draft blog post that I wrote in 2008 on the use of the word “toward(s)” in article titles, and I decided that it was time to update the plot and finally publish it. The background was that I had the gut feeling that there was a somewhat disturbing trend, namely that more and more papers use these words in the title. I thus went to Medline and counted the fraction of papers from each year having a title starting with “toward” or “towards” (I also included them if towards appeared inside the title following a colon, semicolon, or dash):

The plot shows that fraction of articles with “toward(s)” in the title is rapidly rising; it has more than tripled over the past two decades. There is thus no doubt that the use of “toward(s)” in article titles is a trend in biomedical publishing.

As is often the case with statistics, though, this analysis answers only one question but leads to several new ones. Are we increasingly selling our papers on what we hope to do soon rather than on what we have actually done? Or have we just become more honest by now adding the word “toward(s)” where we might have left it out in the past?

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