Writing the title takes just a fraction of the time you need to put down your work on paper. Nonetheless, this starting point is very important one, because it may influence the impact of your work and the number of readers that it will attract. With the increasing digitalization of research, more and more people are using abstract databases to find articles relevant to their work. That’s why, if you want your article to come up in the search results, you should make sure that its title is a good summary of your work and that it addresses the right audience. How can you do this? Here is a step-by-step guide with some useful tips.
Start with a draft
Writing a paper can be a lengthy process that may take anything from a few days to several months. During this time, it is natural to decide to change some aspects of your paper or to come up with new ideas that you haven’t thought of before. That’s why, it’s a good idea to start with a draft title in the beginning and then focus on writing the rest of the paper. If you come up with a good idea in the meanwhile, just write it down and continue with your work. Once you are ready with the whole text, you can return to the title and decide on the final version. In some cases, this strategy can make a huge difference because you may get so distracted from all the editing and rewriting that you may simply forget to make changes to the title as well.
Choose what type you want to use
Titles of journal articles come in a variety of ways and you probably have encountered most of them. For example, Hartley (2008) lists as many as 13 different types but for the sake of clarity we can summarize the most common formats in just three types (Jamali & Nikzad, 2011):
- Declarative titles – state the main findings or conclusions (e.g. ‘A three-month weight loss program increases self-esteem in adolescent girls’)
- Descriptive titles – describe the subject of the article but do not reveal the main conclusions (e.g. ‘The effects of family support on patients with dementia’).
- Interrogative titles –introduce the subject in the form of a question (e.g. ‘Does cognitive training improve performance on pattern recognition tasks?’)
Each of these three types is useful and you should choose a format depending on what kind of information you want to convey to your audience. Declarative titles are generally used in research articles and they convey the largest amount of information. They are also good if you want to emphasize the technical side of the research you have carried out. Interrogative titles, on the other hand, are less common and they are more suitable for literature review articles. But out of the three, descriptive titles seem to be most common type in journals (Jamali & Nikzad, 2011).
How to formulate your title?
Here are a few tips that can help you avoid some of the most common mistakes when writing titles:
- Follow the guidelines of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA, 2009). The manual recommends simplicity and the use of concise statements when formulating your title. Moreover, words that carry little or no meaning should be avoided as they increase the overall length and may mislead indexing services.
- Avoid titles that are too long. The recommended length of a title is no more than 12 words (APA, 2009). Longer titles can be more difficult to remember and, as Jamali and Nikzad (2011) found, articles with longer titles are downloaded slightly less than those with shorter titles (at least in biological sciences).
- You can sometimes use a colon to add additional information to the title, such as the methodology that was used (e.g., ‘Brain activation during perception of face-like stimuli: A fMRI study’). However, using a very long subtitle can sometimes be cumbersome and counterproductive (e.g., ‘Self-esteem: Can it improve interpersonal relationships among community-dwelling adults in North America?). In such cases, you can try to rewrite the title without the colon and see if any crucial information is lost (Hays, 2010).
- Do not use acronyms in the title without spelling them out (Hartley, 2012). Readers who are not familiar with their meaning may simply skip your article even though it’s relevant to their search.
- Irony, puns, and humor in the title may help you attract more readers but they should be avoided most of the time (Hartley, 2008). The problem with them is that they may not be understood by readers who are not native speakers and they also tend to be culture-specific. Moreover, your article will probably appear less often in the search results if you decide to the replace the words carrying the main meaning with a humorous phrase.
Write a few variants
Take the time to write a few possible titles and to experiment using different types or alternative formulations (Hays, 2010). In this way, you will be able to analyze how they would function in reality and possibly generate some new ideas. Sometimes, just by looking at different variants, you can come up with a better idea that combines the best aspects of two or more tentative titles. Once you’re ready with the generation of ideas, just pick the best variant and put it in the place of the draft title.
If you like this post, you can also check out our tips for writing a good abstract.
American Psychological Association. (2009). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington DC: Author.
Hartley, J. (2008). Academic writing and publishing: A practical guidebook. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Hartley, J. (2012). New ways of making academic articles easier to read. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 12(1), 143-160.
Hays, J. C. (2010). Eight recommendations for writing titles of scientific manuscripts. Public Health Nursing, 27(2), 101-103. doi: 10.1111/j.1525-1446.2010.00832.x
Jamali, H. R., & Nikzad, M. (2011). Article title type and its relation with the number of downloads and citations. Scientometrics, 88(2), 653–661. doi: 10.1007/s11192-011-0412-z
Martin Vasilev is an Editor in JEPS. He is a final year undergraduate student of psychology at the University of Sofia, Bulgaria, and the author of some of the most popular posts at the JEPS Bulletin (see for example, his post on writing literature reviews, which was reprinted in the MBA Edge, a magazine for Malaysian prospective postgraduate students).
Martin Vasilev is a final year undergraduate student of Psychology at the University of Sofia, Bulgaria, and the author of some of the most popular posts on JEPS Bulletin (see for example, his post on the most common mistakes in APA style was the most read in the JEPS Bulletin in 2013 and his post on writing literature reviews, which was reprinted in the MBA Edge, a magazine for prospective postgraduate students in Malaysia)
Readers are first introduced to your journal article through its title and images. Think about when you surf social media, news sites, or magazines. What makes you stop skimming and encourages you to read the content? The title or a cool image, of course!
Since we provide tips for labelling your legends in a separate article, this post will focus on how to create the best title for your journal manuscript. In particular, we will cover the following:
- Which title formats you could use for your journal article.
- What information you should include in your titles.
- How long your journal manuscript title should be.
- Whether you should “have fun” with your title.
The following is a summary of our recommendations for how to craft the best title for your journal manuscript.
*Click on the link at the top of the page to download a printable version.*
As with all other information you receive about preparing journal articles, please remember to consult your target journal’s guide for authors and survey recent works published by your target journal to understand its editors’ stylistic preferences.
What Title Formats Are Best for Your Journal Article?
In the infographic above, we briefly point out the pros and cons of various title formats. Below, we provide you with further details about specific title structures and some real-world examples, for reference.
Before we dive into the various title categories, we’d like to explain our approach in preparing this overview. James Hartley conveniently classifies title formats into 13 categories, which we have adapted and re-configured into five types, after conducting our own survey of the most recent and most popular articles on major journal publication sites such as Nature, Elsevier, and Springer. We have also examined papers that analyze recent trends in manuscript title structure and have incorporated our findings into this post.
Below are tables that outline each title type’s key characteristics (preferred grammatical structures and information to include), specify the articles types that commonly use each title format, and list relevant sample titles from major academic publications. Where we do not list any examples by article type, it is because such formats are highly uncommon for that article category.
Finally, while we recognize that each journal has its own article types, we have broadly sorted published papers into the following groups:
- Rapid response and short communication (e.g. letters and corrections): Early communication that highlights significant recent findings, new methods, software, or correspondence aimed at correcting or clarifying original research papers (usually published online only).
- Research paper: An article that discusses details of recent original projects, including their data, results, and findings.
- Review: A paper that summarizes recently published developments on a topic, without adding new data.
- Clinical case: A research paper specifically focusing on clinical research.
Now, let’s look at these formats in more detail.
1. Titles that communicate the general subject
- Phrases, mainly composed of nouns, that clearly communicate the overall subject matter.
- These titles use keywords from abstracts to optimize search engine results, without exceeding the average title length.
- Avoid taxonomic terminology as they’ve become less popular in recent years.
- Don’t use obscure words since titles that incorporate such words tend to have less impact.
- This format is common for reviews, research papers (including clinical cases), and rapid responses.
2. Titles that point to a specific subtopic of a general subject
- Phrases, mainly composed of nouns, that clearly state the overall topic, followed by a colon (or other non-alphanumeric characters) and the subtopic. This structure is highly common for clinical cases, research papers and reviews.
- A recent study by Butar and van Raan notes that this format is widely used in many disciplines. In fact, not using this format could negatively impact your paper’s citation frequency. Conversely, using colons in fields that rarely use this structure won’t impact citation frequency.
- 70% of the most referenced medical papers use colons.
- Fewer Plos articles using this structure were downloaded and cited.
- An alternative title structure consists of a noun phrase or clause, with no colon. These titles can indicate an examination of a general topic through specific variable(s) or test subject(s).
3. Titles that state your study’s findings
- A full sentence that highlights key findings or the study’s significance.
- Some journals may discourage or prohibit declarative titles (some medical publications, for example).
- Be careful to avoid misleading declarative statements. Instead, carefully think about which action verbs you can include without distorting the logical conclusions that can be drawn from your data. For example, if our article’s title is “How to Guarantee Your Paper’s Publication,” we’d certainly be misleading you, since the data and research we’ve reviewed only imply, rather than prove, certain correlations between these formatting tactics and publication success.
- In a related subset of title types, authors do not directly state the findings. Instead, they suggest the solution to their study’s main question. This type usually states the overarching idea, followed by a colon and a general description of the finding and its topic. Alternatively, though rare, authors can use a question to foreshadow answers in the text.
4. Titles that state the methodology used
- A typical title states the general topic, followed by a colon and a summary of the methodology used in the research; however, the reverse order can also be found.
- These titles can also utilize a noun phrase, without a colon.
- Passive verbs may be included with prepositions such as “by,” “via,” “through,” and “with” to indicate the applied method.
5. Titles with emotional appeal or wordplay
- These titles should generally be avoided because wordplay usually involves cultural references that non-native speakers may not understand. Nonetheless, this type of title is often found in review articles in the social sciences.
- Though not featured in this post, editorials and other journal-solicited content often use question titles or feature wordplay.
- As you may notice, few clinical studies or research papers use this format. However, you may occasionally find wordplay titles in reviews and short correspondence.
*Click on the link at the top of the page to download a printable version.*
What Information Should You Include in Article Titles?
Given the academic community’s digital dependence, titles and abstracts should be optimized for search engine algorithms. Yes, even scientists must know a bit about SEO! However, be wary of including too little or too much information in your title.
If a title is too general, it may be misleading or irrelevant to many readers’ needs. If a title is too specific, editors may believe your paper has limited appeal to the journal’s readership. Remember that editors are concerned with maximizing their journal’s impact by targeting a wide range of readers. Therefore, strike a good balance between specificity and broad applicability.
Another factor to consider is what happens when your paper advances to the peer review phase. Reviewers receive limited information about your paper when evaluating your research. If your title is too specific, a reviewer might not feel inclined to review the paper because he or she might not think the study fits within his or her specialty. In turn, if editors must send out multiple rounds of invitations to obtain enough peer reviewers, the editors may feel that your paper might not be a good fit for their journal, or simply reject your paper because they’ve become frustrated and want to move on. Yes, editors are normal people, too!
How long should your journal manuscript title be?
While there’s rarely an absolute requirement for title length, the traditional length varies significantly from one discipline to another. The typical recommended length is 10-20 words. An upper limit might be 30-35 words, because a long title might reflect problems with your research or your ability to succinctly convey information.
In practice, mathematics-related academic papers have shorter titles (~8 words), while medical papers have longer ones. However, while title length might influence your manuscript’s success during the editorial review process, a recent study suggests that title length doesn’t necessarily influence your article’s impact, once published. In fact, the study analyzed other published research that indicate a negative correlation between title length and impact for biology, psychology, and social sciences such as sociology. Intuitively, longer titles can be difficult to digest, and might indicate that the author cannot clearly communicate his or her results. If a reader can’t understand your title, they’re even less likely to read your paper!
On that note, we also discourage highly dense noun phrases. Although the article entitled, “A chromosome conformation capture ordered sequence of the barley genome,” was recently published in Nature, it is a mouthful! Now, imagine if that title had been longer. Just don’t do it.
Finally, journals may strongly recommend certain title lengths or grammatical structures based on data from their most cited articles, so please double-check your target journal’s guide for authors.
Should You Use Wordplay or Puns in Titles?
Unlike titles you commonly find in newspapers and magazines, the academic community is less colorful in crafting their articles, and for good reason. Researchers peruse their journal subscriptions for information relevant to their fields. If your title doesn’t sufficiently explain your study’s content, your paper will likely remain unread.
Several authors who have recently surveyed manuscript titles observed that published works have increasingly incorporated wordplay and questions into their titles, despite a strong tradition discouraging this practice. This trend is likely a byproduct of individualization amidst the digital explosion in the academic publishing world. Certainly, such titles have helped authors gain more visibility. Recent review articles published in prestigious journals, like Cell, have featured puns. Maybe when your research is accepted to a prestigious journal, no one cares what your title is!
However, because certain biases remain regarding the value of works that use these tactics, manuscripts with witty titles “may have lower impact and be cited less, despite being downloaded more.” This doesn’t mean you should test the waters. Wordplay often involves culturally specific idioms, so understanding the pun may be difficult for non-native speakers.
Summary: The Dos and Don’ts of Drafting Research Paper Titles
When creating titles, keep in mind the following:
- Full Sentences?
- In general, avoid full sentences because they are excessively wordy. If you use a full sentence, strip the title to essential nouns and strong active verbs, and make sure your verbs are accurate. If your data is not definitive, for example, add modal verbs like “could” or “may.”
- Social science research papers rarely use full-sentence titles.
- Life science research articles often have nominal and full-sentence titles.
- Review papers rarely use full-sentence titles; most use nominal groups or compound titles.
- While on the rise, titles that incorporate questions are still present in less than 10% of all published articles. They are becoming more common in the social sciences than life sciences.
- One of the most common title structures, either “general + subtopic” or “topic + method” can be used.
- Social science papers favor compound construction.
- Hartley, James. Academic writing and publishing: a practical guide. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.
- Fox, Charles W., and C. Sean Burns. “The relationship between manuscript title structure and success: editorial decisions and citation performance for an ecological journal.” Ecology and Evolution10 (2015): 1970-980. Web.
- Milojević, Staša. “The Length and Semantic Structure of Article Titles—Evolving Disciplinary Practices and Correlations with Impact.” Frontiers in Research Metrics and Analytics2 (2017): n. pag. Web.
- Hartley, J. “New ways of making academic articles easier to read.” International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology1 (2012): 143-160.
- Hays, Judith C. “Eight Recommendations for Writing Titles of Scientific Manuscripts.” Public Health Nursing2 (2010): 101-03. Web.
- Jamali, Hamid R., and Mahsa Nikzad. “Article title type and its relation with the number of downloads and citations.” Scientometrics2 (2011): 653-61. Web.
- Nature Blog: http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2016/12/16/making-headlines-choosing-the-best-title-for-your-paper/.
- Journal of European Psychology Student blog: http://blog.efpsa.org/2012/09/01/how-to-write-a-good-title-for-journal-articles/.
- Wordvice blog: “How to Write the Perfect Title for Your Research Paper.”
- Wordvice blog: “How to Write a Research Paper Abstract.”