Writing effective titles for science papers

How do you find a paper? How do you decide which abstracts to read? The answer is the title. Getting the title right will help your work get noticed, get read and ultimately get cited. Get it wrong, and it will mean that the work you did does not get seen by as many people and, consequently, will be cited less frequently. Research that no-one knows about might as well not exist. However, there is a pitfall, a title that is not supported by the data will mean that the manuscript gets rejected during the review process or, at very least, have major modifications requested.

The advice here refers primarily situations where you have collected new data or performed secondary analysis such as meta-analyses or systematic review, e.g. research projects or data manuscripts for publication. Titles for other types of science writing such as review articles, essays, or opinion pieces are a little different as you have more flexibility to use humour, puns etc. but for research reporting, you should be serious, direct, and unambiguous

Make sure you check the rules! Each journal has a different maximum character or word count.

Styles of Titles

These are the four main types of titles, in order of effectiveness:

  • [Best] The Statement (aka declarative) “LaNts influence laminin organisation.”
  • Compound (statement + question, or statement + implication) “LaNts influence laminin organisation: implications for wound repair.”
  • Descriptive Investigation into LaNts’ effects on laminin organisation.”
  • [Worst] Question (aka interrogative) Do LaNts influence laminin organisation?”

Statements work best as they are the most valuable to the reader. A statement title tells your readers exactly what they need to know without them having to go any further into the manuscript. Your paper will get remembered and cited more frequently if you have a simple clear statement. People will see your paper in their reference library and immediately be able to identify that it is the paper they need to support their point and then choose to cite you.

A statement also helps you. Having a clear message as your title helps you to focus.

In contrast, teaser style questions are annoying. Clickbait might work for getting people to open the abstract but you’ll miss out on citations.

Writing a student paper… state the answer!

I know this is repetition but I really want it to sink in! Definitive results statements will get you better marks. 

In a student paper (e.g. project report) your work is going to get marked. If you use a question or descriptive title then the first thing that your marker will think is that you don’t know what your data means!! Even if the rest of your work is super clear, the very first impression that they will have of your work will be negative.

What about journal articles? What works?

There is quite a bit of published literature on what titles work, in terms of downloads and citations.some of which is subject specific. Here are some trends:

  • Papers whose titles emphasize broader conceptual or comparative issues fare better both pre- and post-publication than papers with organism-specific titles (ref)
  • Articles with question titles tend to be downloaded more but cited less frequently (ref)
  • Journals that use shorter titles tend to receive more citations (ref)
  • Articles with longer titles are downloaded slightly less than the articles with shorter titles (ref)
  • Titles with a colon tend to receive fewer downloads and citations (and be longer) than those without (ref)

But, use the best title for your story (even if it is descriptive)

Be aware that the correlations for each of the findings above aren’t super tight and there are quite a lot of caveats to the interpretation. Moreover, like all stats, these data tell you about the population, they don’t say definitively what will work for your story, don’t try to shoehorn your title into a framework based solely on these findings. Full disclosure, a recent paper of mine has a descriptive title. I tried to reshape it into a statement a bunch of different ways but I couldn’t come up with something that effectively captured the message in a succinct and effective way.

General Advice for Titles

  • Shorter and more general statements work best.
    • You need to be specific and not overreach but aim to be as focused as possible.
  • One clear message is better than two less clear ones; focus on the main finding.
  • Think big picture (within reason).
    • Write your title to appeal not only to the target journal but also to as wide an audience as is appropriate.
  • Using the active voice sounds better than passive.
    • For example, “LaNts regulate laminins” sounds better than “Laminins are regulated by LaNts.” But be careful that you don’t change the meaning.

Writing a draft title is one of the first steps when writing

All the rest of your writing depends on what story you want to tell. Therefore, before you do anything else, decide what you consider to be the primary message that you want your readers to takeaway from your paper. Try to write that message as simply as possible but don’t worry too much about the precise wording. You will come back to adjust the phrasing again during the editing stage later. Your figure order and therefore your results, your introduction and discussion all depend on what the the central storyline.

Some papers are harder to write than others. The more complex the message, the more options you will have for how to frame your story. Try writing a few different versions, then use them to help plan your figure order for the different narratives to see what works the best.

If you are genuinely not ready to write even a draft title then you can get your methods written and you can make the individual data panels for your figures. However, you will struggle writing the rest until you have an idea where you are going!

Seriously, draft a title for your paper early!

Having a draft title in place for a manuscript where you have some of the main story elements but aren’t quite complete is a good way to focus your next set of experiments. Your draft title may need to change to reflect the next set of data but having one in place will help you going forward. Being clear about what you are working toward will help you identify what proofs are required.

With a draft title in place you can  go ahead and make your figures and write the results, intro and discussion sections (click the links to see our guides). Come back here again when those sections are drafted!

Write lots of versions of your title

Try out lots of different versions of your title. Get people who are unfamiliar with the data to look at your different versions to select the one that is clearest in its message. Get people who are familiar to check that you are stating the findings appropriately, not over or understating them and not (accidentally) used a question!

Don’t undersell but also don’t overstate your findings!

If you legitimately have cured cancer then you should shout it from the rooftops. However, if you haven’t then you shouldn’t say you have in your title! Extreme example, but the concept stays true; your title should capture the biggest finding of your data but only go as far as your data can support.

Scientists need proof. A reviewer/editor/marker should spot the overstatement and should ask you to prove any aspect that you have stated but not supported.

Generalisability. A specific form of overstating to be aware of. If your work has been performed in a limited capacity and you don’t yet know if the findings translate to other systems then you do need to indicate the limitation.

For example; “LaNts regulate cell migration” sounds bold and dramatic but if I’ve only checked this in corneal epithelial cells then it would be inappropriate to imply the effects are general to all cell migration.

Presenting implications as concrete findings. Again a specific type of overstating, if your data shows that treatment with drug A decreases protein levels of B and also that drug A changes cell behaviour C but you haven’t shown that C depends on B then you shouldn’t claim that is does in your title! Sounds obvious, but it happens a lot.

Danger words to look out for:

via – have you really connected the two findings? “mir 485 regulates cell migration via downregulating pax6” – unless you have shown conditions where mir 485 treatment was unable to regulate pax6 but could do all its other stuff then via is risky.

to – are you implying a deliberate mechanism (watch for anthropomorphism; assigning character traits to things). Using just “to” as shorthand for “a pathway has evolved to” or equivalent, is quite common but there might be more elegant ways to make that point (simply switching to with which might do the trick)

Really, don’t use a question!

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