It may feel like an afterthought, but taking the time to write an effective title for your paper could be an easy way of promoting your research, says Helen Robertson.
Writing up a manuscript for publication is a multi-faceted process. You’ve finished the literature review, detailed your methods, discussed your findings and formatted your figures. Now, the only thing left is to come up with the title.
Well, perhaps not. An unexpected focus of the ‘How to turn great science into great papers’ workshop at the Naturejobs career expo London, held in September, was on choosing a title. For many researchers, deciding on a title is an afterthought. For others, it’s an opportunity to make a clever pun.
But one of the major take-home messages of this Nature Masterclass presentation — delivered by Andrew Jermy, Chief Editor of Nature Microbiology — was that the title of a manuscript has an important role, and requires more care and consideration than you think.
Any manuscript can be divided into three broad sections: the body of the paper, the abstract, and the title. Of these, it’s pretty much a given that more people are going to see the abstract and the title than the main text itself.
The detail given in the body of the paper is written primarily for your target audience: a specific demographic within your field that might be relatively narrow. The abstract and the title, meanwhile, are going to be seen by a much broader section of the scientific community — especially if your manuscript is published in a journal that covers multiple scientific disciplines. So it’s important to make sure that the title is an accurate reflection of the contents of your paper, whilst being engaging enough to draw in readers.
The main points to keep in mind when deciding the title of your paper can be remembered— fortuitously — by the first six letters of the alphabet: keep it ‘Accurate; Brief; Clear; Declarative; Engaged and Focused’.
Accuracy, clarity and focus are fundamental to advertising all of your work in a single sentence. It’s also sensible to keep non-human readers in mind: choosing the right keywords will optimize your search results on academic databases such as PubMed or Google Scholar. For example, include the names of important genes and model organisms, but avoid abbreviations that might not be familiar to readers outside of your immediate field.
These steps have two clear benefits: not only will you produce a targeted, succinct statement that sums up your findings, but you’ll also ensure that your manuscript will be easily-found online. This should lead to more views, and, ultimately, more citations.
Brevity means avoiding any unnecessary jargon: keep your title snappy and to-the-point to reflect the main results of your work, and emphasize the novelty and importance of your findings to engage your reader. A declarative title makes a clear statement about your paper, but Andrew cautioned against using overly-assertive language. Wherever possible, a title should be written in the active voice. Lastly, avoid using questions: could they imply uncertainty?
As for clever wordplay — at least for research papers — it’s probably best avoided. Puns in research papers — like everywhere else — are more amusing to authors than readers, and don’t help to fulfill any of the ‘ABCs’. A quirky title won’t provide enough information about the main findings of your work, or be focused enough to convey their importance. Furthermore, funny titles probably don’t include the key ‘hit words’ that will help to optimize manuscript reads and citations.
Good research is the fundamental basis of any good paper, but a title is how people get to it. Keeping these points in mind, and taking a little longer to decide a title, might give your paper the boost it’s been missing.
Helen Robertson is a PhD student at University College London, focusing on the evolutionary history and genetics of a group of enigmatic marine worms – the Xenacoelomorpha. She tries to fit in science writing around her lab work, and is a keen long-distance runner.