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Academic Tone
Home » People » Karl Sherlock » Tone Handbook » Academic Tone » Names and Titles

Names and Titles



Writers •

Authors •

Credentials •

Scholars •


Names •

Titles •



When you use outside sources for testimony and perspective, it's customary to introduce a full name and credentials. However, "credentials" is a confusing concept these days. What makes a source "authoritative"? Consider the following case, for instance.

In 2009, Kim Zolciak, a regular cast member of The Real Housewives Of Atlanta, released an iTunes single produced, mixed, and, to a certain extent, written by Kandi Burruss, former member of girl-group Xscape. However, the song's credits are a bit of a muddle. Zolciak claims the song was inspired by her daughter, who wrote the lyrics when she was nine. Viewers of the show, on the other hand, know that Zolciak commissioned an independent songwriter who wrote a "folksy" demo version of the song, including the catchy chorus, then disappeared into obscurity (as the "un-cool" often do in television reality-land). Later, Burruss gave the whole thing a contemporary dance-track makeover, complete with loads of auto-tuning. Okay, so Zolciak has trouble rubbing two vocal cords together to make anything sound like a melody, but whose ego should take credit for the final "studio" release? Her name is on it legally, but is authoring a song the same thing as writing it? Or, producing it? Or, inspiring it?!

These very issues apply to how we credit the sources we use in our academic writing. Understanding the differences helps to strike the correct tone in your academic prose,since your academic readers will likely know the distinctions as well and will judge your scholarship abilities based on it. Here are some definitions to help you introduce the authority of your sources more effectively.


This is someone who writes prose professionally or officially: articles, narrative essays, opinion pieces, general interest pieces, stories, reviews, etc. Being published doesn't automatically make you a writer. It only makes you published. However, in order to be called a "writer" by others, it's generally expected that one be published as well. (This is, after all, how you would cite a writer in your academic work.) Ghost writers, those writers-for-hire who do the work of writing then sign away their authorship rights, are proof that "writer" and "author" have very different legal definitions.


Anyone can be an author, because most anyone can pay to have something published in their name. It's really as simple as that. Some of the least skilled or qualified people have the means to put their names on a book that ends up on The New York Times Bestseller's List. And that raises another issue: writers may write sources, but authors publish and sell them. In the world of academia, authorship, alone, doesn't really mean that much.


The real issue for sources of testimony and perspective is whether or not the writer has the authority to be trusted. If being a writer is not, itself, a set of credentials, and being an author requires no credentials, then where do authoritative credentials come from? Short answer: professional expertise and life experience. Let's say you're writing an essay on the way attitudes about food evolve with a culture's social and political attitudes, and you need scholarly sources. What sort of know-how does this kind of source require?

  1. food know-how
  2. critical perspective
  3. writing skills

All three criteria need to be satisfied in order for the source to be authoritative.

  1. Does a chef qualify?
    No, not in a scholarly way. A chef may have insight into the kind of dishes that have become popular, and that is useful information, but not scholarly information. She can help to answer "What?" or "How?" but not "Why?"
  2. Does a published chef qualify?
    Possibly, if the book is more than a collection of recipes. If a chef is writing a book about trends in food and is backed by professional experience, then this kind of source has potential, but does the author of it qualify? Did she write her own book, or just put her name to it?
  3. Does a published chef and food critic qualify?
    Yes, more than likely. Food critics have to write and understand the complex arena of criticism; they're expected to be knowledgeable and recognized by their peers. With food know-how, critical know-how, and writing know-how, such a source has the credentials to be scholarly.

In introducing the author of such a source, then, you would acknowledge these criteria:

In his book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, nutritionist and internationally recognized food critic, Michael Pollin, blames the paradigm shift in eating habits in the United States on political lobbyists, stating, "No single event marked the shift from eating food to eating nutrients, although in retrospect a little-noticed political dustup in Washington in 1977 seems to have helped propel American culture down this unfortunate and dimly lighted path."

In the above example, citing Michael Pollin as an author, or as a food critic, simply isn't enough to establish his credentials. He has to be acknowledged for his connection to food, his background as a nutritionist, and his peer recognition as a food critic, all of which signals to readers that he has an informed and reliable opinion to add to your writing. Knowing this, consider now how ineffective the following would be as acknowledgments of Pollin's authority:

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto blames the paradigm shift in eating habits in the United States on political lobbyists.
What gives the book its authority?
Michael Pollin blames the paradigm shift in eating habits in the United States on political lobbyists.
Who is Michael Pollin? What gives him authority?
Michael Pollin, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, blames the paradigm shift in eating habits in the United States on political lobbyists.
What about the author gives the book its authority?
Food critic Michael Pollin blames the paradigm shift in eating habits in the United States on political lobbyists.
What gives a food critic the authority to examine politics and nutrition?

All of these express an attitude of opinion, but distinguishing "informed and trustworthy opinion" from "opinionated attitude" is one of the single-most important objectives in acknowledging the credentials of our sources.


Question: What makes an author different from a scholar? Answer: The willingness to do scholarship--real research! In writing an academic essay or article, you are engaging in an act of scholarship, because you will include your sources and your research methodologies as part of your presentation. Scholars often publish "White Papers," authoritative reports that precede formal publication of the collected results of their studies and experiments. Scholars hold up such reports to critical peer evaluation. Scholars focus on specific academic or professional fields of interest in their research and writing. While qualified writers may be experts by virtue of their life experience, scholars make themselves experts by virtue of their research.

Scholars are the most highly sought type of source in academic writing. Most of the time a published scholar is easy to recognize because his or her credentials are prominently displayed: they are university professors; medical researchers; institutional directors; political appointees and elected officials; etc. By showing your readers that other scholarly people have published insights relevant to your own, you enter your ideas into a scholarly arena. You show your readers that you're capable of borrowing a mantle of scholarly authority and are willing to hold up your own writing to the critical scrutiny of scholarly peers.


In academic writing, protocol demands that you maintain a respectful relationship with, both, the reader and the sources. Source citations are not protocols; they are requirements of writing and research that give readers the means to follow the breadcrumbs of your research and review your methodologies. The way authors and titles are attributed throughout your writing, however, is a matter of protocol. Students unpracticed in this style of writing make mistakes of this type all the time, so a quick review of the rules should be of great value to you:


How you refer to an author or scholar's name the first time sets a precedent for how readers will reference it every time thereafter. The first time a name is included deserves special attention and added detail.


When referencing any name for the first time in your academic prose, always use the full name and professional or academic title:

Dr. Helen Gardner, PhD, Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford
rhetorician and communication theorist Marshall McLuhan, the Albert Schweitzer Chair in Humanities at Fordham University
Dr. Peter H. Duesberg, M.D., Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley


Subsequent references to a name should use last names or full names without extended professional credentials:

Gardner; Professor Gardner; Prof. Helen Gardner
McLuhan; Marshal McLuhan; Prof. McLuhan
Duesberg; Dr. Duesberg; Peter Duesberg


First names on their own are never permitted. The following exemplify what is forbidden:

Helen; Professor Helen
Peter; Dr. Peter


Be especially wary of how you refer to authors who write about themselves and make informal reference to their own names. Remember that you must maintain a formal relationship to them in your writing, no matter how tempting it is to use their first names only. For instance:

In Amy Tan's story, "The Most Hateful Words," Tan remembers a life-changing moment when her abusive mother, now suffering from Alzheimer's, calls Amy on the phone to apologize for the hurt she cannot remember causing.


In this example, the bolded “Amy” is a no-no. Because Tan's story is written in the first person point of view and is a personal narrative, this encourages a more intimate relationship with the reader. However, that relationship exists between Tan and her non-academic readers, not between you and your academic readers. Protocol in your own academic writing demands that you continue to refer to the author solely by her last name, regardless of how personally you may have responded to her writing.


The titles of the works you reference in your academic prose follow many of the same rules as the names of the authors:


When referencing a title for the first time, always use the full title, including whatever secondary title it may have. In books, this is found on the title page, not on the cover:

"Positivism and Objectivism: A Comparison of Two Transcendentalist Philosophies"
Thermodynamics. An Introductory Treatise Dealing Mainly with First Principles and Their Direct Applications
"Scaling Properties Of Scale-Free Evolving Networks: Continuous Approach"



Subsequent references to long tiles should scale back the title to a convenient phrase (not a part of a phrase):

"Positivism and Objectivism"
Thermodynamics. An Introductory Treatise or simply Thermodynamics
"Scaling Properties"



Because readers are often looking for these titles among your Works Cited, it's important that you represent them accurately, even in abbreviated format. Avoid changing, condensing or chopping up titles as awkwardly as the following:

"Positivism" [oversimplifies the original title]
Thermodynamics. An Introductory [is syntactically truncated]
"Scale-Free Evolving Networks: Continuous Approach" [doesn't include the title's first keyword(s)] 
"Scaling Properties Of . . . Evolving Networks" [misrepresents the original title]


The title of an academic essay is like a nickname: it gives us a quick impression about the content and the personality of the essay. For this reason, titles indicate the level of seriousness and respect that a writer has for her own topic. Depending on the topic, sometimes there's room to be playful and sardonic. In almost all cases, though, you want to acknowledge to your readers that you're presenting the topic with serious intention, even if the topic, itself, is not all that serious.

The simplest technique to accomplish this is to break your title into two parts, separated by a comma or a colon:

  1. In one part, identify the subject
  2. In the other part, encapsulate the topic

For example, if you have composed an academic essay providing a literary study of existential isolation in Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," then

  1. the subject is a literary analysis of "The Metamorphosis"
  2. the topic is existential isolation

So long as the subject portion of the title is respectful and straightforward, you have some flexibility in how you wish to portray the topic portion of the title:

A. straightforward and clinical

"Franz Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis': A Study of Existential Isolation"
"Existential Isolation in Franz Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis'"

B. playful but serious

"The Insect Under the Sofa: Isolation in Franz Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis'"
"On the Dung-Heep of Life: Gregor's Existential Angst in Franz Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis'"

When the titles become too cutesy, too "jokey," or too irreverent for the topic, then they cross the line of good academic tone:

"Why is Gregor Buggin'?: Franz Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis'"
"Pass the Roach: Franz Kafka Turns On, Tunes In, and Drops Out in 'The Metamorphosis'"

If you are ever in any doubt, you should always check with your professor about what kind of title is appropriate. Some instructors encourage creative and playful titles. Others are sticklers that the title use the language of the assignment. Find out what the ground rules are before you submit the final draft of the essay, but feel free to use whatever title you like when the essay's a work-in-progress.

Last Updated: 11/04/2016

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