The titles of scientific papers are often ineffective. Such titles introduce the subject of the paper but fail to tell the reader the main finding. They only draw the interest of those who already work in the same area, and do not engage wider interest. Fortunately, it is easy to correct these problems, engage your audience and convey the importance of your work. All you need to do is write a good title.
An effective title conveys your major finding in language that a technically competent reader outside your specialty will understand. By focusing on your major result your audience will want to learn more and will read your paper. A good title tells your audience why they should care, increasing the impact of your work.
Good vs bad titles
Let’s look at three strong examples from recent issues of Nature and contrast them with more conventional alternatives.
The best titles clearly state the main finding of your research – they tell the reader what you found. This title does exactly that. From this title the reader immediately knows that the research uses satellite imaging to explore floods More importantly, they know straight away that an increasing portion of the population is affected by floods.
Contrast this title with a more conventional title, such as: Use of satellite imagery to estimate flood extent and population exposure. Although this title tells the reader what the paper will be about, it does not convey the main finding. The title doesn’t explain why someone should be interested in this work. The conventional title works well for someone doing research on flood control. It tells everyone else that they will have to read the paper to find out what satellite imagery can tell us about flooding, if anything. The conventional title does not even tell the reader if this is a methods paper with little general interest, or if it will present results of interest to anyone concerned with global warming. The clearer your title is, the larger the audience it will attract.
This is another effective title. It is topical and it tells the reader the direction of the effect. It is even specific about the species that is affected. A more conventional title might read The effect of climate change on mast seeding and fitness in European beech. This is a fine title if you know that readers are going to be interested in mast seeding or the European beech. This might be the case if you are publishing in a special issue dedicated to one of these topics. You can assume that anyone who reads this issue will be interested in your research and will want to read your paper.
However, you cannot assume this interest for any other publication. In any other publication the readers will wonder why they should care. Maybe there is no effect. They cannot tell from the conventional title. Will they be wasting their time reading your paper? Will it be more efficient for them to read some other paper that they know will be of relevance to their work? If you want to increase your readership, include your major finding in your title.
Even articles with a narrow focus can have clear titles. Compare this title to a more usual one such as Nanophotonic zero-mode waveguides resolve cAMP binding dynamics to multimeric HCN1 and HCN2 ion channels. The original title clearly explains the molecule and ion channels involved and states the major result. It suggests the existence of a new method for investigating ligand binding without the use of technical jargon. Jargon drives away potential readers. The conventional title is so specific that it is only likely to attract those interested in cAMP binding to HCN1/2 sites. It also fails to present the main result. It does not tell the audience why they should care.
Your title is the first thing a reader learns about your work. Good titles clearly state your main finding and give the direction of the effect. They attract more readers. They help you focus your paper on your major result. Writing a good title is the single most important thing you can do to increase the impact of your work. How might you write your title next time you publish a paper?
Dr Bruce Kirchoff is Professor of Biology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG).
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