Getting the title of your research article right
The main purpose of the title of your academic research article is to quickly and clearly convey the most important overall conclusion from your study; essentially, it is a one-sentence summary of the entire study. The title of your research article is the first part of your paper that other researchers will read, so it’s important to get it right! In this post we are going to talk about how to write a great title for your next paper.
What editors take from a title
The title of your submission helps editors decide if they will consider your paper for publication in their journal. In combination with the cover letter, abstract, and sometimes the main text of the paper, editors derive the following important information from the title:
- The title helps editors determine whether a submitted paper is in scope for their journal. Specifically, this means evaluating whether the paper is similar to other papers that they have published previously, and whether their readers will be interested in it.
- The specific subtopic within the field that the study investigated. Most larger journals are subdivided into sections that each publish papers related to specific subtopics within the overall broad focus of the journal. A well-written title will enable an editor to accurately determine the most relevant subtopic and direct the paper to suitable external editors and peer reviewers. The title can also help editors identify papers that are about a trendy topic, or perhaps an underexplored topic that the journal wishes to feature.
- The level of advance that the study represents. Giving your paper a clear and specific title can help editors easily grasp the most important advance that your study provides; that is, the new and significant information that it adds to the wider field. A strong title clearly highlights these advances and distinguishes the study from previously published studies.
What readers take from a title
The title of a published paper is a key determinant in helping readers decide if they want to read the paper. The paper’s title and abstract are typically the only parts of a paper that are listed on an indexing service like PubMed, so having a clear and informative title can help your paper stand out from a list of search results. In cases where the full text of the paper is not freely available (e.g., is hidden behind a paywall), a specific and compelling title can help convince a reader to find a way to access the full article, whether through an institutional subscription or by paying directly to download the article.
How search engines use titles
In addition to attracting reader attention, once your paper has been published the title plays an important role in online discoverability. Most readers will search for new papers online using search engines and/or indexing services such as PubMed or GoogleScholar. These types of services use data mining approaches to retrieve search results based on the text content of titles, abstracts, and more, and specifically rely on the inclusion of keywords. The more specific and accurate your title is, the more likely it is that a search engine will retrieve your paper when a potential reader searches for those keywords. This means that your work will have the chance to be seen by the people to whom it is most relevant.
How to write a strong title
To help write a strong and effective title for your paper that is informative to editors, attractive to readers, and useful for search engines, we recommend adopting the following strategies:
- Make the title a statement. It can be tempting to use the title to describe the purpose of the study or the approach that was taken. However, this means that readers will have to read the abstract and/or the paper itself to learn what you actually found. In contrast, if the title clearly states the main finding, then readers will be able to quickly grasp the main advance that your study provides and easily ascertain whether the paper is interesting or important enough to read.
For example, instead of: ‘Investigating the efficacy of telehealth in diabetes management’
Try something like: ‘A telehealth intervention effectively improves diabetes management’
- Use active voice. Writing the title in active voice results in a strong statement of the main finding from your study, and can help keep the word (or character) count lower, and thus within journal-specified limits.
For example, instead of: ‘Metastasis is reduced by inhibition of growth factor X’
Try something like: ‘Inhibition of growth factor X reduces metastasis’
- Be specific. Be sure to mention the core content of the paper in the title, for example the name of the organism that you investigated, the name of the new technique that you developed, or the type of cancer that you studied. Not only will this help readers quickly understand that main advance that your study provides, it will also help avoid accidentally ‘overselling’ the study (e.g., by implying that the results are applicable to all types of cancer instead of the single type you investigated).
For example, instead of: ‘Deletion of abcA inhibits fungal hyphae formation’
Try something like: ‘Deletion of acbA inhibits Candida albicans hyphae formation’
- Make it accessible. To help ensure that as many readers as possible can easily understand the title, it is advisable to avoid abbreviations and, where relevant, to briefly define or describe field-specific terms.
For example, instead of: ‘Slc22a6 is involved in metabolite sensing’
Try something like: ‘The organic ion transporter Slc22a6 is involved in metabolite sensing’
- Make it discoverable. It is important for indexing services and search engines to be able to categorise and retrieve your paper appropriately, so be sure to include the most important keywords in the title. Titles tend to be only around 10-15 words in total, so many of these words should be the same centrally important terms that appear in the abstract and the keywords list. For example, the hypothetical paper title presented in point 2 above currently contains two main keywords: ‘metastasis’ and ‘growth factor X’. A stronger title that is more likely to be retrieved by multiple searches would contain five or more keywords such as the type of cancer, the name of the inhibitor, the signalling pathway that the growth factor is part of, and so on.
In summary, writing a strong title for your academic research article can make it easier for journal editors to assess your submission, convince readers to read your paper, and make the paper easier to find using online search tools.
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