The title of your paper is your shop front. If it doesn’t appeal to your reader they won’t read further. So, make sure you don't make any of these common mistakes. If you want to become an expert at crafting paper titles, download the Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Right Title for Your Paper, which includes detailed instructions, an analysis of real examples from the literature and a checklist.
How many references did you discard after reading the title the last time you made a literature search? And how often have you wasted time because the paper you retrieved wasn’t about what it seemed to promise? Exactly…
And think about this: When an editor reviews your paper, they are also likely to read the title first. So, that’s your chance to make a first impression. Surely, you don’t want to confuse them or make them work for it.
When I edit papers for my clients I spend considerable time on critiquing the titles and often suggest edits or alternatives. Here are the ten most common mistakes I found people make in their paper titles:
1. The title doesn’t describe the main result of the paper
Different from headlines in magazines and newspapers, the title of a research paper isn’t as much a teaser. Your reader wants to know what exactly you added to the field. It isn’t enough to just give them hint about the general topic area.
For this, it is important to know your main message. In fact, this is crucial for the whole paper writing process. I touched upon that in my previous blog posts “The five most common mistakes when writing a scientific paper” and “How to write a scientific story”. You might also be interested to know that papers with titles that describe the result are more likely to get picked up by the press or discussed on social media.
2. The title contains too much detail
This happens either when people want to cram in too much information, or when they are unclear about their main message. Sometimes authors also try to convey several key messages instead of focusing on the main one.
3. The title is too long
Long titles take longer to read and comprehend. A study found that papers get more views and citations if the title contains fewer than 95 characters.
4. The title is unspecific
If you provide a title that isn’t very specific, your reader won’t know if your article provides what they are looking for. Here, it counts to maintain a balance between being general enough for your target audience (see mistake 9) and specific enough to convey your key result (see mistake 1). Being specific in your title is also important for indexing purposes. So, make sure to provide the most important keyword(s) of your paper in the title.
5. The title contains question marks, hyphens and colons
By phrasing your title as a question, you merely present your research question instead of your key message. If people include a colon or hyphen in their title they often present too much detail (mistake 2) or they chose a title too broad and general (mistake 4). If you need more convincing, the study I cited earlier also found that papers receive fewer citations if they contain question marks, hyphens or colons.
6. The title is too noun-heavy
You only have seconds to tell potential readers what your study is about. So, it’s important to make it easy for them. If your title is full of nouns, it will take your reader longer to read and comprehend than if it contains a verb. Chances are your reader will just give up without even considering opening your paper. However, not all journals permit using active verbs (“Eating spinach strengthens the teeth” – I made this up). Therefore, be sure to check the journal guidelines (see also mistake 10).
7. The title contains unnecessary filler words
The goal is to make your title as short as possible (see mistake 2). Don’t waste the space with phrases such as “an observation of” or “a study of” or filler words such as “on…” (as in “On the energy efficiency of solar cells…”). Tell the reader instead what you observed or what your study found (see mistake 1). Be specific about your result (see mistake 4).
8. Using acronyms in the title
A general rule is to always spell out acronyms. If your reader doesn’t know what an acronym means they are more likely to discard your paper. Nobody wants to do extra research. That said, it’s worth knowing your target audience. Perhaps there are some abbreviations or acronyms that you can expect the readership of the journal to know?
9. The level of jargon doesn’t match the target audience
This is linked to the previous point (mistake 8). Always consider the audience of the journal you intend to publish in. If it is read by biologists, geologists, chemists and physicists all the same, you need to make sure they can all understand your title. Just be careful to not make your title too general, it should still reflect your specific result (see mistake 2).
10. The title doesn’t adhere to the journal guidelines
Something I always suggest my students and clients to do before they start writing is to check the journal guidelines. Most journals have either strict rules or recommendations on how long a title should be and what they should or shouldn’t contain. For example, Nature doesn’t permit any acronyms, punctuation, technical terms or active verbs.
There you have it. If you want me to walk you through how to choose the perfect title for your paper step by step, and are curious about learning from real examples, download the free guide:
“How to write a good title for journal articles” by Martin Vasilev on the JEPS Bulletin
“Making headlines: Choosing the best title for your paper” by Helen Robertson on the Nature Jobs Blog
“How to write a first-class paper” by Virginia Gewin, Nature 555, 129-130 (2018)
Have you made any of these mistakes? What's your experience with paper titles? Let me know in a comment below!
About the Author:
I’m Dr Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.
I also regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.
When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably out and about with my dog and assistant Zuza.