1. About
  2. Features
  3. Explore

Many journal articles start with the phrase: "Towards a theory of...", as in these real examples from diverse fields:

"Towards a theory of innovation in services" (Management)

"Towards a theory of soft terms for the supersymmetric Standard Model" (Physics)

"Towards a theory of communicative competence" (Sociology, Linguistics)

"Towards a theory of parallel programming" (Computer Science)

My literal interpretation is that a full theory is not being presented; instead, the article presents useful elements or steps.

But I wonder if this phrase is overused and tired. It seems like it could be a mask or even false modesty, perhaps to deflect criticism. My inclination is to avoid it if my article actually presents a theory, or most elements of a theory. I would be inclined to use it only if the article was presenting a primarily a directional argument, i.e. "go this way, and not that way" to make progress on this theory.

Based on this data from Google Ngram Viewer, English books, it seem like it is declining in popularity: "Towards a theory of"-Google Ngram Viewer, English books

Question: Do you think this phrase is tired, and therefore should be avoided when possible? Or do you think it is valid and should not be avoided?

I'm looking for answers that are based on experience, conventions, and norms in particular fields and institutions.

1 Answer 1

Nice analysis. But, you would be surprised to see many other overused idioms too in publication literature like "A novel approach to..." where in theory nearly all proposed research method should be novel. Nevertheless such papers do get accepted for publication.

In the end it is the author and the reader who is to be concerned with the titles. If you feel that the reader would tire of the idiom, then you may not include it in your articles. As stated in your question, at times the idiom do very well fit the article. In which case there would be no need to avoid the idiom. But you may regulate the overuse of the phrase if you are to review any manuscript that comes with the phrase.