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Writing Strong Titles for Research Manuscripts

Release Date: April 1, 2012
Category: Manuscript Writing

Key Points Summary

  • Titles can affect journal reviewers’ and editors’ impressions of the quality of your work, whether readers can find your work once published, and whether readers will be interested in reading your work.
  • Strong titles have three elements: keywords, emphasis, and impact.
  • Always check the author instructions for your target journal for title requirements before submission.
  • Avoid using abbreviations, filler phrases, and humor.
  • Keep your title brief and focused on the most important point in your manuscript.

The title is a critical component of your manuscript well before your manuscript is published. Even if the rest of your manuscript is perfectly written, a weak or poorly written title can affect journal reviewers’ and editors’ impressions of the importance of your work. If your target journal considers only the title and abstract when selecting manuscripts to review, a poor title could mean your manuscript might not be reviewed at all.

After publication, the words in the title will determine whether readers can find your article with the search terms they use. Your title is likely to be the only thing readers see in a list of search results. Writing a strong title is vital to making sure readers can find your published article and are interested in reading more.

Because the titles you write influence your publication success and whether readers will find and be interested in reading your articles, it is very important to write strong titles. Strong titles have three elements: keywords, emphasis, and impact.

Keywords and Key Phrases

Keywords and key phrases are the terms that describe the topic of your article. Readers use keywords and phrases as search terms when searching for articles. Using the right keywords and phrases in your title will help readers find your article when they are searching for articles about your topic.

Emphasis

Emphasis means making sure that the most important aspect of your article is prominently included in the title. Titles are brief and reader attention is fleeting. Paying attention to emphasis helps you make the most of the title and ensure that it conveys your most important point. Careful emphasis also helps ensure that your title describes the information in your article without vagueness or exaggeration.

Impact

A title with impact communicates why readers should pay attention to the article. Add impact to your title by indicating what is novel or innovative about the results, or how your work will affect the field.

The Title-Writing Process

Following the steps listed in the table below will help you write titles that contain your keywords and key phrases, and have emphasis and impact. The examples in the right column* demonstrate how to create and refine a title from start to finish.

Step     Title Evolution
1. Answer the questions “What is my manuscript about, specifically? What is the main result I am reporting?”     My manuscript is about our study, which found that patients at high risk for developing advanced AMD who took antioxidants plus zinc reduced their risk of developing advanced AMD by 25%.

2. Answer the questions “What was the study design and who were the participants?” Be as specific as possible.     The study was a randomized clinical trial that lasted for 7 years. There were 3640 patients who had at least early AMD and were between 55 and 80 years old.

3. Identify the keywords and key phrases in your answers. Avoid using uncommon abbreviations when possible.     randomized clinical trial
age-related macular degeneration
antioxidants
zinc
reduced risk
patients over 55

4. Identify the most important aspects of your answers that you will emphasize to add impact to your title.     Patients at high risk for advanced AMD who took antioxidants plus zinc reduced their risk of developing advanced AMD by 25%

5. Draft a title sentence using the keywords and emphasis and impact information.     In a randomized clinical trial, patients over 55 and at high risk for advanced age-related macular degeneration who took antioxidants plus zinc reduced their risk of developing advanced age-related macular degeneration by 25%

6. Revise the title to emphasize the important information. Try placing the important information first, and being specific about any relationships (e.g., “reduces” rather than “affects”). Make a statement rather than using weak phrases like “The effects of…”     Taking antioxidants plus zinc reduces the risk of developing advanced age-related macular degeneration by 25% in patients over 55 who were at high risk for advanced age-related macular degeneration in a randomized clinical trial

7. Revise the sentence to remove extra words that detract from the title’s impact. You can also try rewording the title to reduce the number of words or improve impact.     Antioxidants plus zinc reduce the risk of advanced age-related macular degeneration in high-risk patients: A randomized clinical trial

or

Antioxidants plus zinc reduce the risk of advanced age-related macular degeneration for high-risk patients
 
*Examples are based on information from the National Eye Institute Age-Related Eye Disease
Study; details are available at www.nei.nih.gov

Always check your target journal’s author instructions before submission. You may have to tailor your title to meet the journal’s particular requirements, such as word or character limits and rules about using abbreviations.

Title “Don’ts”

  • Don’t be too broad or too vague. Write a title that emphasizes your key finding rather than describing a broad subject within your field. A specific title will be more helpful to readers, who want to know exactly what research your paper presents.
  • Don’t use abbreviations, unless they are approved by your target journal. The full term is more useful for keyword or key phrase searching, and abbreviations can mean different things, even within similar fields.
  • Don’t use wordy filler phrases like “a study on” and “the effects of.” These phrases dilute the strength of your title because they add bulk without much meaning.
  • Don’t try to be humorous, unless you are preparing a manuscript for a journal that commonly publishes humorous titles. Amusing titles may not include the keywords readers will use to find your article and can confuse readers from different cultural backgrounds. Instead, focus on writing a title that attracts attention because it identifies the most important and compelling aspect of your research.
  • Don’t let your title become too long. Use your title to state only the most important point in your research.

More Resources for Writing Titles

  • BioMed Central. Writing titles and abstracts for scientific articles. www.biomedcentral.com (accessed February, 21 2012).
  • Hopp, Angela. How to write top-flight manuscript titles. ASBMB Today. www.asbmb.org (accessed February, 22 2012).

Scientific Writing Workshops

If you like our articles, try our workshops! Our articles are based on the material from our scientific writing workshops, which cover these and many other topics more thoroughly, with more examples and discussion.

We offer on-site workshops for your event or organization, and also host workshops that individual participants can attend. Our on-site scientific writing workshops can range from 1-2 hours to several days in length. We can tailor the length to suit your needs, and we can deliver a writing workshop as a stand-alone activity or as part of scheduled meetings.

Our scientific writing workshops consistently receive high praise from participants including graduate students, post-docs, and faculty in diverse fields. Please see our scientific writing workshop page for details.

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