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Ask Dr. Editor

How to write an effective title for your next journal article

There’s no simple formula but research offers some strong options.

par LETITIA HENVILLE | 14 JUILLET 22

Question:

So, journal article titles: long? short? colons? question marks? What works best?

 

– Anonymous, Political Science

Dr. Editor’s response:

There’s no single best way to structure a title for a journal article – no prizes for having guessed that. But it’s worth putting in the effort to write the best title for your article’s content, your planned journal, and your anticipated audience.

More than 20 years ago, a world-wide Elsevier survey of 5,000 academic researchers found that each researcher read, on average, 1,142 titles, 204 abstracts, and 97 papers each year (Mabe & Amin 2002). Back then, academics were reading the full article for one out of every 12 titles they came across – likely as they scanned the tables of contents of newly published issues of a journal. Given the ongoing growth of academic research publications (see Boon 2017) and the emergence of tools like PubCrawler, I’d be surprised if the current ratio of titles-to-full-articles-read was still as high as one in 12.

As it becomes harder to be seen in a flood of new publications (at least anecdotally) – and as performance metrics like citation counts and the H-index become increasingly important for job applications, tenure, and promotion – “a good title can […] contribute to the reputation and professional advancement of its writer.” (Hyland & Zou 2022, p. 1.)

I see two options for determining what constitutes a “good title” for your work:

Option 1: Dive into the research literature

The research literature on the titles of journal articles is mixed and contradictory. Looking only at the length of titles, you can find research that argues that short titles are most highly cited (Paiva et al. 2012), that long titles are most highly cited (Guo et al. 2018), and that title length is not correlated with the number of citations received (Didegah & Thelwall 2013). So if you’re going to dive into what the research tells us about the titles of journal articles, I recommend looking only at research that focuses on your specific field. Examples of discipline-specific investigations include:

Likely you’ll have noticed, dear letter-writer, that political science is not listed as one of those disciplines – unless you’re happy to be part of the catch-all “social sciences.” Given that readers in different disciplines likely have different needs and patterns, I don’t think you’ll find a compelling answer in the preceding list to the question of what makes for a compelling journal article title in political science – which takes you to Option 2.

Option 2: Start long, then make strategic edits

As researchers increasingly find the articles that they want to read by searching databases like Google Scholar, I recommend adopting the strategy that bloggers use who are looking to attract Google’s attention: start long. Dream up a long list of terms you might want to include in your title, integrating your topic, methods, and even your results; include both abstract nouns (analysis, study, learners) and concrete ones (interviews, eight-year-olds). I ask you to start with a long list because including more words in your title gives search engines more terms to grasp.

Of course, because you’re ultimately looking to attract the attention of a human reader and not simply some algorithm, you’ll need to edit your long list into something that seems coherent, structured, even compelling. Likely, your work attracts both other political scientists and researchers from adjacent fields – people who work with the same population, nation, region, or demographic group as you. You’ll want your title to appeal to this broadly defined field of researchers.

Your choices for crafting a coherent title out of your long list of terms include:

  1. Keep it simple. Give your reader a short string of nouns that describe your subject area, or even a sentence that integrates your findings or gives some sense of how you approached your study. Feng Guo et al. suggest that articles “with shorter titles might be more attractive to readers than those with longer titles, because some readers may associate long titles with complexity or long-windedness” (2018). Helen Sword also suggests that short titles are preferable, arguing that a straightforward title conveys important subtext: “You can trust my results because my research has been conducted according to the highest scientific standards” (2012).
  2. Go with a colon. Ken Hyland and Hang Zou recommend a few ways you might consider structuring a colon-separated title: “offer the topic in general and specific terms, a problem followed by a solution, a topic with a method, [or] a topic with a result.” They continue by noting that, if you’re using innovative methods or methods that are uncommon in your discipline, highlighting those in your title “may be especially useful in attracting readers who may be using the same method or looking for innovative approaches to a shared problem” (2022).
  3. Ask a question. Although less popular than other types of titles, a question-and-topic or question-and-method title may help you to attract readers as they discover that they want to learn more about the issue at hand.

As a social scientist, your best article titles will likely be both informative and engaging. The informative side of your title will appeal to the search engines; the engaging side will help readers decide that your piece is one that may be worth their scarce time and attention. In a chapter dedicated to “Tempting Titles” in one of my favourite books, Stylish Academic Writing, Dr. Sword argues that academics should avoid the temptation to cram searchable keywords into their titles:

Thanks to recent advances in electronic search technologies, titles no longer provide the only or even the principal means by which researchers in many disciplines locate relevant articles. Yet academics remain shackled to the notion that titles must always include major keywords. Roughly 80 percent of the articles in the journal Social Networks, for instance, contain the word “network” or “networking” in their titles (2012, p. 72).

Dr. Sword’s point is that the context in which an article’s title appears – in this case, the journal Social Network – provides the frame through which the reader interprets the title. Her suggestion to consider including “one or two words that you would not expect to find in any other title in the same journal” (p. 75) is compelling.

Yet given the volume of publications produced each year, the opacity of search formulae, and the potential that some of your readers may not be publishing in the same journals that you do, I don’t see a problem with adding a key term that may seem obvious – unless you’re bold enough to believe that 80 per cent of your colleagues make poor choices.

À PROPOS LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to her at shortishard.ca/contact or on Twitter @shortishard.
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