How to write a good research paper title
“Unread science is lost science.”
28 July 2020
With the influx of publications brought on by the pandemic, it’s become more challenging than ever for researchers to attract attention to their work.
“In the era of information overload, most students and researchers do not have time to browse the entire text of a paper,” says Patrick Pu, a librarian at the National University of Singapore.
“The title of a paper, together with its abstract, become very important to capture and sustain the attention of readers.”
1. A good title avoids technical language
Since the primary audience of a paper is likely to be researchers working in the same field, using technical language in the title seems to make sense.
But this alienates the wider lay audience, which can bring valuable attention to your work. It can also alienate inexperienced researchers, or those who have recently entered the field.
“A good title does not use unnecessary jargon,” says Elisa De Ranieri, editor-in-chief at the Nature Communications journal (published by Springer Nature, which also publishes Nature Index.) “It communicates the main results in the study in a way that is clear and accessible, ideally to non-specialists or researchers new to the field.”
How-to: When crafting a title, says De Ranieri, write down the main result of the manuscript in a short paragraph. Shorten the text to make it more concise, while still remaining descriptive. Repeat this process until you have a title of fewer than 15 words.
2. A good title is easily searchable
Most readers today are accessing e-journals, which are indexed in scholarly databases such as Scopus and Google Scholar.
“Although these databases usually index the full text of papers, retrieval weightage for ‘Title’ is usually higher than other fields, such as ‘Results’,” Pu explains.
At the National University of Singapore, Pu and his colleagues run information literacy programmes for staff and students. They guide researchers in publishing best practice, and give advice on how to identify the most commonly used keywords in literature searches in a given field.
“A professor once told us how he discovered that industry experts were using a different term or keyword to describe his research area,” says Pu.
“He had written a seminal paper that did not include this ‘industry keyword’. He believes his paper, which was highly cited by academics, would have a higher citation count if he had included this keyword in the paper. As librarians, we try to highlight this example to our students so that they will consider all possible keywords to use in their searches and paper titles.”
How-to: Authors should speak to an academic librarian at their institution to gain an understanding of keyword and search trends in their field of research. This should inform how the paper title is written.
3. A good title is substantiated by data
Authors should be cautious to not make any claims in the title that can’t be backed up by evidence.
“For instance, if you make a discovery with potential therapeutic relevance, the title should specify whether it was tested or studied in animals or humans/human samples,” says Irene Jarchum, senior editor at the journal Nature Biotechnology (also published by Springer Nature, which publishes the Nature Index.)
Jarchum adds that titles can be contentious because different authors have different views on the use of specific words, such as acronyms, or more fundamentally, what the main message of the title should be.
Some authors may over-interpret the significance of their preliminary findings, and want to reflect this in the title.
How-to: If you know your paper will be contentious within the scientific community, have the data ready to defend your decisions.
4. A good title sparks curiosity
A one-liner that sparks a reader’s interest can be very effective.
“A title has to pique the interest of the person searching for literature in a split-second – enough that they click on the title to read the abstract. Unread science is lost science,” says Christine Mayer, editor-in-chief of the journal Advanced Therapeutics.
Paper titles such as, "White and wonderful? Microplastics prevail in snow from the Alps to the Arctic" (2019 Science), and “Kids these days: Why the youth of today seem lacking” (2019 Science Advances) are good examples of this principle.
Both papers have high Altmetric Attention scores, indicating that they have been widely read and discussed online.
How-to: Take note of the characteristics of paper titles that spark your own interest. Keep a record of these and apply the same principles to your own paper titles.