How do you search for scientific literature? Chances are, you start by entering keywords into a search engine and then scroll more or less mindlessly through the output list until you come across a title that grasps your attention. The readers of your articles do the same. So, if you want to attract readers to your papers, you’d better create titles that catch the little attention they have when they browse the web. In this post, you will learn how to do just that: You will discover practical advice for writing catchy scientific titles.
Talking about titles…
…makes me think about my Ph.D. supervisor, Denis Hilton, my doctor father as the Germans say.
The best titles promise an exciting journey, and Denis was a master at that craft. An Oxford-educated Englishman, he was the epitome of the Enlightenment intellectual, gifted with endless curiosity. From science to history, tennis, rock music, literature, economics, cheese, languages, wine, or politics, every aspect of culture interested him. And like the truly creative mind that he was, all his passions merged to generate research ideas and sometimes article titles such as the one below.
As a young Ph.D. student, I couldn’t imagine anything more inspiring! He passed away a year ago, and as I write these words, I realize that he showed me the joy and playfulness of research. I wish that his inspiration would accompany me every minute of my work; I wish that you would also experience it every minute of your work!
How to write a catchy title?
To be catchy, your title must have certain features.
A catchy title informs the reader about the content of the paper
The first function of a title is to allow the reader to identify at a glance the subject of the article. Concretely, how can you do that?
1. Describe in your title what the research is about
Are you looking for the effects of one variable on another? Are you trying to clarify a vague concept?
Your title should capture the essence of your research and state its purpose. For example, you can:
- Include your key variables (i.e., your dependent and independent variables) and their relation to each other (e.g., “The effect of nutrition on blood pressure“)
- Specify the population or context to which your research applies (“Applying ecological models to communities of genetic elements: The case of neutral theory“)
- Indicate the problem you are addressing (e.g., “A universal Bayesian inference framework for complicated creep constitutive equations“)
- Mention the methods you have used (e.g., “Investigating emotion with music: an fMRI study“).
2. Set the right expectation for the paper
Your title should give an accurate preview of the content of the paper. Do not overstate or exaggerate the achievements of your study. I know it may be tempting because you want to catch people’s attention. However, a disappointed reader (or reviewer) is worse than an uninterested one. Thus, focus your title on your research’s most central questions (or results), even if you wish they would be more exciting.
3. Specifies the type of your article
Scientific journal articles come in various formats: empirical studies, reviews, case reports, multistudy analyses, theoretical models, or opinions. You can use your title to inform the reader of the type of article your document falls under, especially if it is not standard (e.g., “Socioeconomic status and obesity: a review of the literature”).
A catchy title grabs the attention of the right readers
The second purpose of a title is to catch the attention of the readers for whom you wrote the article. Readers will come across your article in two ways: either by scrolling through the issue of the journal where it will be published or on search engines. In both cases, your article will be swimming in a sea of other papers. You want your readers to stop scrolling and click on your title.
A title quoting the Rolling Stones, like my supervisor’s, is great in this regard because it brings a smile and arouses curiosity. However, this does not mean that every article must be crowned with a sexy title. In some journals or fields of research, editors and readers would see a whimsical title as inappropriate and lacking seriousness. Furthermore, the purpose of your title is not to attract just any reader but those for whom your research is relevant. Talking about a research topic, a theory, or a method your readers care about can be more efficient than appealing to pop-culture classics.
There are several tricks to help you capture the attention of your readers.
1. Make your title easy to read
When your readers scroll through lists of articles, they quickly scan the screen. Thus, one glance should be enough for them to identify the subject of your paper. To make your title easy to read:
– Keep it short, i.e., no more than 15 words. Shorter titles get more citations (see here for correlational evidence).
– Remove all unnecessary words (e.g., “study of,” “analysis of,” or similar constructions).
– Avoid characters that are difficult to print, such as subscripts, superscripts, or mathematical characters.
– Use correct grammar and capitalization.
– Avoid jargon, complex technical terms, or rare abbreviations, especially if you want to reach a broad audience.
2. Tailor your title for your readers
In which journal do you want to publish your article? Who are your readers? Is it a broad audience or a specialized readership? What do they care about? What kind of vocabulary do they use? When writing a scientific article and its title, it is essential to know who you are writing for and adapt to that audience.
Adapting to your audience starts with conforming to the journal’s norms to which you intend to submit your article. Indeed, journal differs in the style of the titles they publish. Some journals have longer titles than others. In some journals, titles can be playful, while other outlets require serious titles. If you’re not sure of the type of titles you’re expected to create, look for examples in the journal where you would like to submit your paper.
Tailoring your title to your audience means using a language they can relate to. This is especially important if you are working on a topic where different communities use different terminologies. Let me give you an example from my field!
Scientists in different disciplines of psychology use different terms to refer to the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes. Social psychologists call it “empathy,” developmental psychologists talk about “theory of mind,” neuroscientists use the word “mentalizing,” and cognitive psychologists “perspective taking.” I know, it’s a mess! If you are working on a topic that can be designed with different terms, consider the community you want to address, use their nomenclature and stick to it (please don’t mix different terminologies, it’s too confusing!).
3. Use words that create a positive impression and stimulate reader interest.
The title creates a first impression of the article. So, you can use it to signal that you are an exciting thinker and an engaging writer.
A playful title is an excellent strategy to pump up your audience and make your article viral. If you’re inspired, and the journal you would like to submit your paper allows it, go for it! However, if you use pop culture or news references in your title, keep in mind that your article may still be read years from now, and your reference should still be relevant (and not too corny) at that time.
Another way to make a strong impression in your title consists in using power words (they’re super cool with a power breakfast and power poses ! 😃). The term “power words” is an internet expression to designate words that trigger emotional responses or curiosity. In science, power words can be nouns or adjectives that:
- Show extremity, such as billion (e.g., “Billions of North American birds have vanished“), mass (e.g., “Avoiding ocean mass extinction from climate warming”), or extreme (e.g., “Life at extreme limits: the anaerobic halophilic alkalithermophiles“).
- Carry novelty or surprise, such as discovery (e.g., “Discovery of unusual dimeric piperazyl cyclopeptides encoded by a Lentzea flaviverrucosa DSM 44664 biosynthetic supercluster“), revolutionary (e.g., “Revolutionary leaps in the development of agriculture“), or unconventional (e.g., “Paracetamol: unconventional uses of a well-known drug“).
- Relate to emotions, such as fear, horror (e.g., “Playing With Fear: A Field Study in Recreational Horror“), or threats (e.g., “Climate change and ecosystems: threats, opportunities, and solutions“).
A catchy title is easily found on search engines
Nowadays, all researchers look for scientific literature on the web, whether it is on Google, Pubmed, or other databases. The problem is that if you type a keyword in one of these search engines, thousands of articles will appear. To ensure that your article will rank well, you can use search engine optimization (SEO) strategies. One of the most efficient of these strategies entails optimizing your title (see this post to learn more about SEO for scientific papers).
To optimize your title for search engines, you must include your main keywords. Don’t use synonyms, but instead focus on the keywords that your target readers might type into a search engine. If you have more than three keywords, include the most important ones in your title and add the others to your keyword list (the keyword list also influences your ranking).
Keywords in a title can refer to:
– The dependent variables.
– The independent variables.
– The method used.
– The theory behind the research.
– The question that the article addresses.
Which formulations can you use in your titles?
To help you develop precise ideas, I’ve put together a list of formulations that are typical for titles. Look at these formulations and pick those that inspire you the most.
1. Your title could be a phrase
A phrase is a group of words that does not convey a complete thought; it lacks a subject, a verb, or both. For example, your title can be a phrase describing:
- The research question, e.g., “The influence of X on Y” (see example here). It’s not super sexy, but it has the advantage of being informative and precise.
- The proposal of the article, e.g., “A new model for representing X and Y” (see example here).
2. Your title could be a sentence
A sentence refers to a group of words that expresses a complete thought and necessarily contains a subject and a verb. A sentence is easier to understand than a phrase and more dynamic but also longer.
Sentences in scientific titles usually describe the main result. For example: “Illusory faces are more likely to be perceived as male than female“.
3. Your title could be followed by a subtitle
Subtitles are popular in some scientific disciplines. For example, you can use:
- The general topic area as the title and the paper’s contribution as the subtitle. Example: “Keratinocytes: From passive targets to active mediators of systemic autoimmunity.”
- A catchy phrase as the title and the topic or contribution of the paper as the subtitle. Example: “Dressed for success: soft gel cloaked in membrane can snap brick.”
- A new term as the title and its description as the subtitle. Example: “IMP: a new method for health problem assessment.”
4. Your title could be a question
Questions are a great way to motivate readers to go further. So why not use them in your titles?
Example: “What constitutes the prefrontal cortex?“
A good title can be tricky to pull off. In this post, you’ve learned concrete tips for making your titles informative, catchy, and findable on search engines. So how do you go on from there?
Don’t spend hours searching for the perfect title. Of course, the title is important, but if it’s understandable and informative, you’ve achieved what matters most. Rather, identify the keywords that should be in your title and take 25 minutes (a Pomodoro) to generate 15 titles that include those keywords. Write down anything that comes to mind. YES! ANYTHING! Once you have your list of 15 titles, choose the two or three you like best and propose them to your co-authors.
Does that sound like a good plan?
How to write your introduction + template
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Writing a good introduction is essential to getting your paper published in a top journal and captivating your readers. It’s essential… and challenging! With this template for writing your introduction, you will find:
- Pre-writing instructions
- Writing instructions
- Explanations on how to use the template
- A checklist to make sure you have included all the important elements for your introduction.