Uninformative paper titles: "in Africa"

When I saw a new NBER working paper titled “Disease control, demographic change and institutional development in Africa” (PDF) pop up in the NBER RSS feed I thought the title sounded interesting, so I downloaded the paper to peruse later. Then today the new-ish (and great!) blog Cherokee Gothic highlighted the same paper in a post, and I finally took a look.

Unfortunately the paper title is rather uninformative, as the authors only used data from Burkina Faso. Sure, economics papers tend to have bigger, less formal titles than papers in some other fields, but I think this is particularly unhelpful. There are enough search frictions in finding applicable literature on any given topic that it helps to be somewhat more precise.

For reference, here’s Burkina Faso:

And here’s Africa:

Not the same.

It’s unclear from the data and arguments presented how these results — for a regional disease control program, but only using data from Burkina Faso — might generalize to the quite diverse disease environments, demographic trends, and institutional histories of various African countries. The paper doesn’t answer or even give much grounds for speculation on whether onchocerciasis or other disease control programs would yield similar results in countries as diverse as (for example) Senegal, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Angola.

A quick thought experiment: Virginia’s population is about 1.5% of the total population of North America, just as Burkina Faso’s population is about 1.5% of the total population on Africa. Can you imagine someone writing a paper on health and institutions using data from Virginia and titling that paper “Health and institutions in North America”? Or writing a paper on Vietnamese history and titling it “A history of Asia”? Probably not.


07 2013

4 Comments Add Yours ↓

The upper is the most recent comment

  1. kevin grier #

    Hi Brett: great point. I love the map, it really drives it home.

  2. Berk Ozler #

    Harounan is from Burkina…

  3. 3

    Brett, thanks for engaging with this article on your interesting blog.

    Both of your points about paper titles are very well taken, re guiding lit searches and also making an implicit claim about the paper’s potential external validity.

    Just to frame the extremes, I think the world’s record for a general titles on a specific paper goes to this article:

    In the age of full-text searches, I expect that titles have become less important for literature reviews — so their main function is to tweet the paper’s subject. In our case, the name of the disease and its location is incidental to the problem. We use oncho in Burkina only because its control offers a very unusual quasi-randomized glimpse into the much more general phenomenon described in our title.

    Looking forward, we can only hope that — outside the particular lamp post of oncho control in Burkina — Africa’s other endemic diseases are also brought under control quickly and effectively. Maybe other researchers can find the data to study their effects, and if it turns out that other disease-control efforts don’t lead to stronger rural property rights, then attention can turn to the differences between this and other cases… and folks elsewhere will have even more to learn from the case of oncho control in Burkina.

    Thanks again for the post!


  4. 4

    Hi Will — thanks for commenting, and for writing an interesting paper. You’re certainly right that this paper isn’t the worst in terms of over-general titles, but I still hope the final journal version of this article will clarify the location in the title. 🙂
    Some folks do full-text searches — I know I was more likely to be more thorough in searches when writing up something more serious or academic — but many folks still find literature via titles, or at least do a first screen of what they might read by some combination of article title, authors, and journal.


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