Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Is Betteridge’s law valid?

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

Photo by Peter Lawrence on Unsplash 

“[I am]…best-known for something that was intended as a throwaway remark.”1
—Ian Betteridge

Ian Betteridge, a technology journalist, stated in 2009, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.’” He meant, of course, only yes-or-no type questions. His idea was that if the writer or publisher was confident that the answer was “yes,” they would have presented the headline as an assertion, rather than a question. By using a question, they may feel that they are escaping responsibility for asking something that may be incorrect.2 To use an extreme example, “Will the world end in 2021?”3

Newspapers may end a headline in a question mark to try to “elevate some run-of-the-mill piece of reporting into a national controversy,”4 to attract attention to the article, to publish something without having “facts or figures,” or to “defame” someone. A small survey in Bosnia-Herzegovina showed that a majority of newspaper readers suspected such headlines were published, in fact, to defame an individual.5

Ian Hinchcliffe, a physicist, has stated, “If the title of a scholarly article is a yes-or-no question, the answer is ‘no.’”6 The number of scientific article titles ending with a question mark doubled in the interval from 1966 to 2005. Such articles are downloaded more often than those not phrased as a question, but are cited less often.7

A study done in 2010 looked at 3,200 journal article titles. Six percent (193) of the titles were phrased as questions, the majority as yes-or-no questions. There were seven times more question-titles in what they called “soft sciences” (economics, education, history, and sociology) than in the “hard sciences” of biology, engineering, geology, and medicine. There was, however, no discussion of the relative proportions of “yes” versus “no” conclusions in the articles’ text.8

Another study looked at 368,362 articles in “clinical” medical journals, and 596,889 articles in more-or-less “pure” scientific journals. The clinical articles had 3.9% question mark titles, the scientific ones only 2.3%, which was statistically significant.9 Here as in the previous study mentioned, the authors did not mention the relative proportion of “yes” versus “no.” Two other studies did show the ratio of “yes” to “no” possible answers. A 2016 study looked at all the articles published in 2014 in what the authors called the five “top-ranked” journals, and five “mid-ranked” journals in each of six academic fields (literature and literary theory, psychology, sociology, political science, computer science, and astronomy). Of the 7,845 journal article titles, 2% (177) had question titles, and nearly half (85) were yes-or-no type questions. The answer “yes” was found in the body of the article 1.5 times more frequently than “no.”10

A review of more than 130 issues of four different ecology journals looked at about 2,600 articles. Four percent of the articles had question-titles, half of which (55) were yes-or-no question titles. The texts contained “yes” answers to 44% of the question-titles, and 22% “no” answers to the question; thus, “yes” answers were twice as frequent as “no.” The author also found that about one-third of the answers in the article could be considered as “maybe.” He then added the “maybes” to the “yesses” to give 78% positive, or partially positive answers.11

For readers of scientific journals, Betteridge’s law, as modified by Hinchcliffe, does not hold. Readers of newspapers, however, should think of Betteridge.


  1. About Ian Betteridge. Ian Betteridge. https://ianbetteridge.com/about/
  2. “Betteridge’s law of headlines.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betteridge%27s_law_of_headlines
  3. The Starmann. “What is Betteridge’s law of headlines; few examples!” Medium, October 9, 2021. https://thestarmann.medium.com/what-is-betteridges-law-of-headlines-few-examples-ab1e04f45ff6
  4. Alec Nevala-Lee. “Is this post an example of Betteridge’s law?” October 27, 2015. https://nevalalee.wordpress.com/2015/10/27/is-this-post-an-example-of-betteridges-law/
  5. Sabahudin Hadzialic. “Betteridge’s law and its impact on social awareness and methodology of journalistic work.” International Journal of Global Business Management and Research, 12(1), 2023.
  6. Nevala-Lee, “Is this post.”
  7. Jaap Nieuwenhuis. “Another article titled ‘Should I stay or should I go’ or, the mass production of academic research titles.” Information Society, 39(2), 2023.
  8. Robin Nagano. “Question forms in journal titles.” Conference Proceedings of 4th Doctoral Conference in Applied Linguistics at Budapest, February 2010.
  9. Maeike Zijlman et al. “Do clinicians use more question marks?” J Royal Soc Med open, June 5, 2015. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2054270415579027
  10. James Cook and Dawn Plourde. “Do scholars follow Betteridge’s law? The use of questions in journal article titles,” Scientometrics, 108(3), 2016. https://ideas.repec.org/a/spr/scient/v108y2016i3d10.1007_s11192-016-2030-2.html
  11. John Mola. “Does ecological research follow Betteridge’s ‘law of headlines’? ”Aggie Brickyard, 4, Winter 2017, pp. 11-12. https://aggiebrickyard.github.io/posts/WinterVol-IV/

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Winter 2024



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.