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. This step can be completed in either the drafting or manuscript editing or proofreading process while you are preparing your work for submission to journals.
*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:
Now, let’s look at these formats in more detail.
1. Titles that communicate the general subject
2. Titles that point to a specific subtopic of a general subject
3. Titles that state your study’s findings
4. Titles that state the methodology used
5. Titles with emotional appeal or wordplay
|Rapid response 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:
- 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.”
- Wordvice YouTube Channel: “Crafting the Perfect Title”