On what makes a good paper title: Signaling content and format up front

Every month, I get several “Table of Contents” emails in my inbox listing the titles of new articles in academic journals. I’d like to say I eagerly and excitedly open the emails and pour through the newly-published work of other scientists.  What more often happens, however, is that these emails languish in my inbox for weeks, until I set aside an hour or two to scan all the titles at once, making quick decisions about which sound the most interesting to download and read.

We focus a lot of attention on distilling our work into abstracts that will convince our audience to actually download and read a paper, or to attend our presentation at a conference. But before an audience gets to our abstract, the title has to draw them in. Thinking only about the abstract misses the first hurdle in gaining the attention of our potential audience.

A recent blog post from Tania Lombrozo caused me to think a little bit more about the nature of scientific papers’ titles. Her article, titled “This Could Have Been Shorter,” discusses the struggles and benefits of distilling science communication into shorter forms.  She relates a story in which she encourages her lab members to distill their research projects into Twitter-length tidbits (i.e. complete descriptions in 140 characters).  One student quipped back, “It’s called the ‘title.'”

This got me thinking – are we really treating our titles this way? Should we be? What should our title actually signal about our work?

I think that making paper titles like tweets makes for better and much more descriptive titles, at least for some kinds of papers.  But let me be a bit clearer about what I mean – it’s not just making titles that are shorter than 140 characters.  Rather, it’s distilling the content and point of the paper into this length.  Let me pick on myself as an example.  The title of my master’s work is “Direct and indirect effects of organic matter source and concentration on denitrification in Northern Florida rivers” (116 characters, if you’re counting along at home).  Although this gives you an idea of what the paper is about, it doesn’t tell you what those effects actually are.  Why leave this to mystery?

If I were writing this paper as a tweet, it might read “Terrestrial organic matter depresses denitrification by shading aquatic primary production of labile organic matter in Florida rivers” (133 characters).  I think this is better because it tells you up front what the most important findings are. Of course, there are nuance and detail that aren’t captured in this short summary, but it’s more engaging than my published title.  The most obvious difference between these is that the “tweet” version contains a verb. It’s a statement about something doing something.

We can use paper titles to indicate what new links and knowledge our work brought to the world. We can include a verb to show the action of our findings.  Give a hint of what the study did or found that was novel. There’s no need for mystery!

These results-driven studies aren’t the only kinds of papers, of course, so different types of titles are necessary. A different format of title might indicate that we’re pontificating about a new problem or emerging concept, without providing a fully packaged study.  A paper title written as a question might do this.  A format like “The Twitter-Title Concept: A framework for producing better titles” can also achieve the dual goals of indicating a paper’s form and what it does that is new.

Another kind of title format could indicate that we’ve reviewed the literature and are presenting the review through a new lens/with a new viewpoint. Maybe here, what I think of as the classic “olde-timey” title format might serve well: “On the effectiveness of journal article titles” with or without some more information after a colon.

I think that writing titles that are more up front about signaling the type of paper we’ve written and what it adds to the body of literature will help streamline literature searches and draw readers.  The framework I’ve suggested here is pretty narrow, and doesn’t nearly cover all possible types of papers or studies.  I think that moving toward more complete and thoughtful paper titles could be a good step for all of us.