A Title that Works: Characteristics and Tips
By Ksenia Maryasova, manager of the AWC.
Judging the book by its cover is a pointless task, but falling into this pitfall is easy. We often judge books by their covers as well as research papers by their titles.
The title occupies an exclusive place in the text as it immediately captures the reader’s attention and influences his/her decision to read the paper or not. It’s a good idea to take advantage of this fact and create a concise, informative, and catchy title that will draw the reader in.
What might cost you a few head scratches is condensing the whole paper to a short phrase without sacrificing anything relevant and, at the same time, hooking the reader. In this post, we will focus on what makes a title good and how to achieve the desired result.
Characteristics of a good research title
In 2005, rhetoric scholars Hairson and Keene in their book Successful Writing came up with four goals that any good title accomplishes.
- A good title predicts the content of the research
A good title informs the reader accurately about the contents of the article. The main responsibility of a title is to explain what the article is about without misleading or establishing wrong expectations. Make sure it doesn’t include anything that your reader won’t be able to find in the paper.
We found an interesting case of Christian Kastner, an associate professor in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, who brainstormed more than 30 titles for his research paper. The first title was “50 Years is Long Enough”. What do you think his study is about? It’s very hard to guess because the title is vague and uninformative.
After browsing through a long list of ideas, the author decided to name it “The Love and Hate Relationship with the C Preprocessor: An Interview Study”, which clearly shows the research method; the reader can also predict the objective of the study: to identify users’ attitude to C Preprocessor.
What questions does your paper seek to answer and what does it accomplish?
2. A good title should be interesting to the reader
To make the title interesting, attention-grabbing, and easy to read, use words that create a positive impression and stimulate the reader’s interest. The example above is catchy enough to become a memorable title.
However, be careful if you want to include a catchy phrase. Even though stylistic devices make titles witty and more attractive, such titles may be not clear. When trying to add some zest, make sure your title conveys information in an unambiguous and precise manner, communicates the message clearly, and doesn’t encourage multiple interpretations.
How about another example of a title by Kastner?
Variability-Aware Parsing in the Presence of Lexical Macros and Conditional Compilation
How do you like it? Does it make you want to read the paper? Probably no. It sounds too dry as it contains very field-specific vocabulary, which might be clear only to specialists. It doesn’t provide any clue on the type of study or results either.
This is the second version of the same title:
SuperC: Parsing all of C by taming the preprocessor
It is flashier and much more intuitive. SuperC, a name that was given to the program, alludes to a superhero; verb ‘to tame’ creates a powerful image.
To attract wider audience, choose words carefully, avoid technicalities and specific vocabulary if possible. Instead, go for words that create vivid images.
3. It reflects the tone of writing
It’s very important to define the tone of your research in the title and keep it throughout the paper. If it’s a serious and conventional academic study, avoid a casual or fun title containing ornate or conversational language.
Medical research is a serious business. Hence, it is better to avoid amusing or hilarious titles for research articles. Although they might attract some initial attention, findings in articles with amusing or humorous titles are usually taken less seriously and are cited less often. (Bavdekar, 2016)
Let’s look at a couple of titles with inappropriate tone:
All this effort to design software metrics? Sure!
Should I teach my child programming at the age of 3? (Maybe!)
The conversational tone of these titles is inappropriate for a research paper and better suits an easy read.
4. It contains important keywords
Keywords are important words and concepts that are frequently used in your research paper. Using them in the title will let you introduce the topic, problem, or solution right away.
Let’s take a look at the examples from the book How to Write and Illustrate a Scientific Paper by Bjorn Gustavi:
The effect of calcium antagonist felodipine on blood pressure, heart rate … in patients with essential hyperextension
According to Gustavi, this title is not very effective as it reveals which disease was studied only at the end. He advises to place keywords at the beginning of the title. This makes it immediately clear what you studied, and your research will be easier to find:
Essential hypertension: The effect of …
Look at the following titles and analyze them using the characteristics that we have discussed — do they predict content, evoke interest, and reflect tone?
Time for a Marketing Curriculum Overhaul: Developing a Digital-First Approach
Marketing Сurriculum is Dead: Developing a Digital-First Approach
Developing a Digital Approach for Marketing
Writing tips to keep in mind
Now that we’ve discussed characteristics that make a title good, let’s look at the tips on how to make it powerful and searchable.
Concise and on point. In 2012, Paiva’s research showed that short-titled articles “had higher viewing and citation rates than those with longer titles. Articles with results-describing titles were cited more often than those with methods-describing titles”.
APA recommends that your title be no more than 12 words in length. If it’s too long, there may be too many unnecessary words.
The following titles are way too long. The chances are that your mind starts to wander halfway through. How would you shorten them?
Social Influence: Testing the Predictive Power of Its Dimensions in Explaining the Intention to Use Mobile Learning Systems in Universities — Empirical Evidence from Ugandan Universities
An Empirical Examination of the Effect of Self-Regulation and the Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology (UTAUT) Factors on the Online Learning Behavioural Intention of College Students
Avoid non-specific phrases such as ‘a study to investigate, ‘a review of, ‘a report on’. These phrases are too obvious and generally unnecessary.
A Study to Investigate the Relationship between Locus of Control and Academic Achievement of Students
On the other hand, if a title is too short, it’s a slippery slope towards making it too broad, non-specific, and the reader won’t be able to grasp the gist. For example, a paper on philosophy of education with the title “Learning How” is so non-specific that it could be the title of a DIY manual.
Incorporate variables. To write an informative title, identify key variables, both dependent and independent. Suggest a relationship between the variables with respect to the major hypothesis:
Effects of a new tooth paste (YummyTooth) on incidence of caries in 1st grade children.
In this study, the toothpaste is the independent variable X and the number of dental caries is the dependent variable Y. Therefore, the relationship between the variables is reflected in the title:
Effects of X on Y in 1st grade children.
Titles that reflect relationship between variables usually contain such words as effects, influence, impact. Here are some more examples of such titles:
The Effects of Cooperative Learning on Mathematics Achievement in Turkey: A Meta-Analysis Study
Exploring the Impact of Commuting to Campus on Psychological Well-Being
The Influence of Electronic Word-of-Mouth on College Search and Choice
Stay active. Use active verbs and structures instead of Passive Voice and complex noun-based phrases, which may distract the reader’s attention. According to Gustavii, turning the noun into a verb makes a sentence more dynamic.
Compare the following examples:
Treatment of polycystic ovary syndrome
How to treat polycystic ovary syndrome …
Here’re some examples of titles with the Passive Voice. How would you paraphrase them?
Perspectives on Effective Coaching by Those Who Have Been Coached
Do Test Scores of Students Who Have Been Retained Predict Future Performance?
The Dynamics of Cognitive Performance: What Has Been Learnt from Empirical Research in Science Education
Instead of asking, answer. Titles containing a question mark, a colon or a hyphen were associated with a lower number of citations (Paiva et al., 2012)
Instead of title in a form of a question — Why is the C preprocessor still breathing?, it’s better to tell the reader the answer from the beginning — Talking about the C Preprocessor: Errorprone but needed.
Read the following titles and form statements out of the questions:
Do the Big-Five Personality Traits Predict Empathic Listening and Assertive Communication?
Contextual Influences on the Role of Evidence in Health Policy Development: What Can We Learn from Six Policies in India and Nigeria?
Can Student Populations in Developing Countries Be Reached by Online Surveys? The Case of the National Service Scheme Survey in Ghana
Stay away from using an exclamation mark and remember to capitalize all content words.
Avoid abbreviations and jargon. The use of non-standard abbreviations in the title distracts and disturbs the reader. If acronyms have to be used in the title, it is advisable to spell them out, unless they are universally known, such as NASA or WWF. Otherwise, there is a possibility that readers not familiar with the acronym might skip the article altogether.
We tried to Google PC, one of the most well-known acronyms. The results were striking — The Free Dictionary gave 325 results, including personal computer, politically correct and plasma cell. So, even the most inquisitive reader may never find out what you meant by the acronym.
Here are some real research titles with acronyms. What do you think of them? If their message clear?
Why International Students Have Been “TEF-ed Out”?
The Discourse of QDAS: Reporting Practices of ATLAS.ti and NVivo Users with Implications for Best Practices
A Study on the Employee Turnover Antecedents in ITES/BPO Sector
Titles with jargon or too many technical words are considered uninteresting, unnecessary complex and difficult to read. They may confuse the readers, inducing them to ignore the article altogether.
Writing a title is not a piece of cake, but it’s worth making the effort. Keep in mind the characteristics and tips you’ve learnt and create an informative and concise title that will grab the reader’s full attention.
If you’d like to read more on a step-by-step procedure of writing a title, follow the links:
A step-by-step guide to writing a title: https://wordvice.com/how-to-write-the-perfect-title-for-your-research-paper/
How to write subtitles:
Checklist for finalizing title for a research article
- Hairston, M., & Keene, M. 2003. Successful writing. 5th ed. New York: Norton.
- Title, Abstract and Keywords. https://www.springer.com/gp/authors-editors/authorandreviewertutorials/writing-a-journal-manuscript/title-abstract-and-keywords/10285522
- How to Write a Good Research Paper Title. https://papersowl.com/blog/how-to-write-a-good-research-paper-title
- On Paper Titles (Bad Ideas, Rejected Ideas, and Final Titles). https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~ckaestne/ontitles/
- How to Choose the Best Keywords for Your Research Paper. https://wordvice.com/choosing-research-paper-keywords/
- Articles with short titles describing the results are cited more often. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3351256/
- Basics of Research for the Health Professions. http://www.pt.armstrong.edu/wright/hlpr/text/3.1.variables.htm
- Formulating the Right Title for a Research Article. http://www.japi.org/february_2016/08_aow_formulating_the_right.pdf
- Gustavii, B. 2008. How to Write and Illustrate a Scientific Paper. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press